Monday, August 10, 2015

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

The man behind the myths
Washington: A Life, a biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow, was published in 2010. It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Washington is a legendary figure whose life encompassed enough adventures, accomplishments, and anecdotes to fill a whole shelf full of books. To cram this man’s life into one volume is an ambitious and challenging undertaking, but Chernow pulls it off in excellent fashion. In 67 chapters, he follows the arc of Washington’s fascinating life—his youth on a Virginia plantation, his forays into the western wilderness as a surveyor, his military exploits in the French and Indian Wars, his home life as a planter at Mount Vernon, his leadership of the Continental Army in the American Revolution, his participation in the Constitutional Convention, his two terms as President of the United States, and his retirement as a living legend.

The book is not merely a laundry list of Washington’s achievements, however. The popular image of Washington that pervades American culture is that of a stone-faced statue who could do no wrong. Chernow cuts through the myths and finally shows us Washington as a human being with imperfections, personality quirks, and insecurities. When I first started reading the book, phrases like “superhuman strength” made me worry that I was in for a typical adulation fest, but Chernow soon laid those fears to rest. Rest assured, the book contains a satisfying amount of hero worship where appropriate, but overall Chernow’s balanced approach gives a full, rich picture of the man behind the figurehead. He gives Washington credit where credit is due, but doesn’t let him off the hook when he acts unethically or in error. One area where Chernow is particularly thorough is on the subject of slavery. Washington often expressed a desire to abolish slavery, yet he himself was a slaveholder, and in some cases not a particularly lenient one. Chernow explains Washington’s conflicting attitudes toward slavery without making excuses for him.

This biography is full of surprises and really allows the reader to view Washington in a different light. Instead of the silent stoic, we see a charming man who loved to dance and flirt with the ladies. Though he owned an incredible amount of land, Washington was constantly cash-poor. While he was revered by the public as almost a god during his lifetime, his politics were mercilessly attacked by his rivals, led by Thomas Jefferson. The latter is part of a supporting cast of luminaries that are also covered in detail. Chernow not only paints an intricate portrait of Washington, he also provides a vivid, panoramic view into this fascinating period in American history.

Really the only criticism I could come up with against Chernow’s book is its length. At times reading it felt like a monumental undertaking, but I can honestly say that it never bored me. Chernow’s prose is perfect. He can take complex matters like Revolutionary troop movements and early-republic policy debates and render them totally clear and understandable to the general reader, yet he doesn’t dumb down the language or the ideas. He has the rare knack for summarizing without oversimplifying. This book is truly a remarkable work of research and synthesis. The sheer quantity of sources Chernow must have had to wade through to compile this biography is staggering. I’m neither a historian nor a Washington scholar, so I’m in no position to quibble with any of Chernow’s findings. From the perspective of a general reader who’s always been fascinated by the mysterious Father of Our Country, however, this one-volume, cradle-to-the-grave biography not only satisfied my curiosity but also far exceeded my expectations.
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