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ArlingtonQ&A: Biographer discusses complicated life of Arlington House proprietor

Q&A: Biographer discusses complicated life of Arlington House proprietor

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Arlington journalist, historian and author Charles S. (“Charlie”) Clark recently penned “George Washington Parke Custis: A Rarefied Life in America’s First Family.” The book chronicles the complicated life of Custis (1781-1857), who was raised at Mount Vernon – he was the grandson of Martha Washington and step-grandson of George Washington – and in adulthood was responsible for the construction of the Arlington House estate using both free and enslaved workers.

Clark on Nov. 11 delivered a presentation on his work at Marymount University in a program cosponsored by the Arlington Historical Society. A video of the presentation will be made available at www.arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org.

The Sun Gazette recently checked in with Clark to get his take on the subject of the book, the writing process and the current tendency to judge the past through the lens of the present day.

What was the genesis of this project, how long did it take to complete, and do you feel by the end of it you got to “know” Custis, or does he remain an elusive figure from the vantage point of two centuries in the past?

My wife has long been a George Washington specialist, so we had many relevant books in our house. As a local columnist, I began learning more about Arlington House, where my collaborator Matt Penrod long worked, and noticed a “gap” on the history bookshelf – no bio of Custis. I won a research fellow grant from Mount Vernon (truncated by the pandemic), and, fortunately, as I neared retirement from my daytime reporting job in 2019, was able to visit key archives in Virginia, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia and North Carolina. I used the lockdown to write and remotely fact-check the book, after McFarland Books acquired it. Total was three years. Quoting only period comments, I felt I got to know the vulnerabilities of this man from the strange land called the past. But he remains a contradictory figure, a combination of near-greatness and mediocrity.

What was the most unexpected insight your research revealed not just about Custis, but about the times in which he lived?

That he enjoyed such a fan club. If you study only his time as a child and teenager living at Mount Vernon, he comes across as a spoiled academic failure. If you study his life as an adult, he pales in comparison with George Washington and eases into his role as a slaveowner who exploited his work force like many in the upper class. But after he built the imposing Arlington House (using enslaved and free labor), his patriotic orations, political and biographical writings, preservation of historic artifacts, and playwriting made him a frequent public speaker whom crowds cheered. Patriotism was in fashion back then, with George Washington continuing after death as a uniting figure. The book’s explosive episode – the most comprehensive detail on Custis’s fathering of a child with an enslaved woman, which makes Maria Syphax the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington – is important, but not my original scoop.

Whom do you envision as the typical reader of this work? Who else would you like to read the book?

It’s detailed and footnoted enough to attract the specialists, relying on quoting primary sources (though I read plenty of modern professional historians to understand the Early American period). But the plain-English writing style and organization by topic (with illustrations, a map and family tree) could attract any history-lover. Like my journalism, I take a fairly neutral approach on most controversies about elitism, slavery and the legacy of his son-in-law Robert E. Lee, in the hope that advocates on all sides of those issues benefit.

It’s often said that a writer gets the idea for his next book from the book he/she currently is working on. Are there any people, places or things that jumped out at you from this writing experience and said, “write about me next”?

I’m hoping some advanced-degreed academics might jump off from some of my treatments and do an in-depth, data-based analysis of, say, the economics of Custis’s slavery-dependent plantations, or perhaps a study of the various portraits of this lifelong privileged man. For myself, I may shift to more-personal writing.

As someone who studies and writes about history, how do you feel about the current tendency to judge those from eras gone by using modern standards?

It’s clear that many young people who delve into history are more interested in zipping directly to sorting the good guys from the bad. Older folks felt it was more civically responsible (and, in some cases, patriotic) to learn facts and key players regardless. I welcome the late-20th-century rethinking of history to add in the roles of women, minorities and working people to the traditional focus on white male military victories. But I also believe you have to cut some slack for people living in a different climate than we have today. I try to see the entirety of their lives. And, of course, today’s era brings no clearer consensus than was achieved by those struggling with tough issues in the past.

Charlie Clark discusses his new biography of George Washington Parke Custis during an Arlington Historical Society program held at Marymount University. (Historical Society photo)
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