- Washington: A Life
by Ron Chernow.
In his 2010 Washington: A Life
, historian Ron Chernow became the latest author to write the authoritative single-volume biography of George Washington. It's certainly an impressive work, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and weighing in at a hefty 948 pages or 42 hours on audio. Does this massive tome live up to all of this and bring something new to those who've read up on Washington? Yes, yes, it does.
Much like Joseph J. Ellis' 2004 His Excellency: George Washington
, the cornerstone of Chernow's approach is the recent (in historical perspective) Papers of George Washington Project at the University of Virginia. Using these papers, modern authors are able to dig into Washington's inner thoughts in a way that previous biographers like James Thomas Flexner, whose 1974 single volume biography Washington: The Indispensable Man
was a previous champion of the single volume Washington bio genre, could not. But while Ellis settles for a mere 352 pages, Chernow goes to the limits of what a single volume can hold in nearly tripling that total. As a result, Chernow delves very deeply into Washington's life and thoughts, and covers both the man and his times as extensively as is likely possible between the confines of two covers.
As one might expect between the now available original sources and the page count, Chernow covers Washington's life in great detail. Both by time frame - early life, French and Indian War, pre-Revolution, Revolution, private life between generalship and the presidency, presidency, and retirement - and subject - military, political, personal, economic, slavery - Chernow covers the man as well as many books focused on any single one of those subjects. I've read a lot on Washington and his times, and Chernow managed to illuminate each of those periods and subjects for me in some way even with my solid background.
There are two main themes that Chernow uses to good effect. He focuses on Washington's relationships and his finances to get to his inner self.
There are a large cast of secondary characters in this biography, and Chernow does an excellent job of getting the reader to know them on their own and in the context of their relationship with Washington. The major personages given this treatment are Martha Washington, Alexander Hamilton (not surprising, since Chernow previously wrote a massive 2004 biography of him, which is now high on my to-read list), the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, John Adams, Sally Fairfax, and Washington's step-children and step-grandchildren. Chernow clearly demonstrates the impact Washington had on each of these people, and their impact on him.
Chernow's focus on Washington's finances is another interesting approach. By following the old adage to follow the money, the reader gets a real sense of Washington's situation. His efforts to turn a profit on Mt. Vernon, the financial weight of slavery, his debt, the true costs of the land rich but cash poor Washington serving as Commander in Chief without pay, the costs of entertaining the multitudes who made the pilgrimage to Mt. Vernon, constant dental bills, and most importantly the devastating effects of his prolonged absences on his business interests, all combine to shine a light on a less glamorous but vital part of Washington's life. This last is especially vital, as in seeing how much Mt. Vernon suffered every time he was off serving his country, the reader gets a much better understanding of Washington's love of his country and his sense of public service.
The period of Washington's life that Chernow expanded the most for me was his second term as president. A lot of attention is usually placed on the first term and the crucial precedents set then. While Chernow does indeed cover that well, the beginning of rough and tumble politics in his second term is fascinating, and seeing the increasingly fractious country begin to consider even Washington a fair game for political sniping is a major turning point in American politics.
All of this effort - focusing on relationship and finances - does an amazing job of humanizing a man who often seems more monument than someone who actually lived. Chernow lets the reader really get to know Washington, both in his impressive patriotic context but also in the personal and sometimes flawed intimate details of so large a life as well. Chernow doesn't try to explain away the imperfections, either, instead letting them stand as equally valid parts of the man who often was indeed as great as he's been made out to be.
I listened to Penguin Audio's 2010 production of the book, narrated by Scott Brick. The production was very well done, Brick delivers a powerful performance, giving the reading weight while still keeping a brisk pace, a necessity given the length of the book. The unabridged production runs approximately 42 hours.
I highly recommend Chernow's Washington: A Life
, even to those well-read on the man and his times. Chernow does a great job of providing new angles and insights, and it's the most complete picture of the Father of Our Country I've yet read. It's more of an investment in time than slimmer volumes, but it's well worth it. As mentioned previously, Chernow's biography of Hamilton is now high on my list and I plan to read that soon.
Related reviews:Washington: The Indispensable Man
by James Thomas Flexner - https://plus.google.com/u/0/102062373234332211376/posts/QHzbxN3jpdCHis Excellency: George Washington
by Joseph J. Ellis - https://plus.google.com/u/0/102062373234332211376/posts/gwfGPmjC68tAn Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America
by Henry Wiencek - https://plus.google.com/u/0/102062373234332211376/posts/DmNhPf2DR9MThe Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon
by John Ferling - https://plus.google.com/u/0/102062373234332211376/posts/czjpYbsB8Bc