My question is prompted by a recent book out about General James Wilkinson — An Artist in Treason, by Andro Linklater. It just received a respectful review from NPR, which absolutely baffles me.
Wilkinson is a worthy subject for a book. He was the general-in-chief of the U.S. Army from 1797 (or so) to about 1808. He was a remarkable scoundrel, on the payroll of the King of Spain as a double agent and intimately involved in Aaron Burr’s Western expedition.
The book, however, includes some astonishing factual mistakes. On two consecutive pages (pp. 215-16), it includes the following errors:
- It describes Burr as “tall, elegantly dressed. . . ” Though Burr’s story is often shrouded in mystery, the ONE thing we know about him is that he was SHORT. All his life, he was called “little Burr.” This error alone is enough to cause a reader to lose all confidence in the book.
- It describes Wilkinson as sending Burr a note in May 1804 “immediately after landing in Charleston,” that Wilkinson wanted to spend the night with Burr. Well, Wilkinson and Burr were New York City then, not Charleston. Burr never lived in Charleston.
- It states that Burr’s house in Richmond Hill “lay on the road from Charleston to Washington.” Burr’s Richmond Hill estate was in Manhattan, which is hardly on that particular road.
- It states that Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel because Hamilton stated that Burr was “a dangerous man unfit to be entrusted with the reins of power.” Burr challenged Hamilton because Hamilton said he held an opinion of Burr “yet more despicable.” That term, in their time, implied sexual depravity. For 15 years, Hamilton had been saying that Burr was unfit for power without drawing a challenge from Burr.
And those are only the mistakes I happened to pick up in this two-page passage.
Do these mistakes matter? Only if you want to know what actually happened, why, and what it meant.
Why don’t book reviewers catch such howlers? Laziness? Ignorance? You tell me..