Feature

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Chernow's 904-page biography is “expertly narrated and full of remarkable detail.”

(Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40)

Few subjects hold greater fascination for biographers than George Washington, said Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.
In this “prodigious” new life of the famously taciturn father of our country, Ron Chernow spends 904 pages attempting to read the great man’s mind. Yet the book, though “expertly narrated and full of remarkable detail,” too often builds its portrait from sheer speculation. Though historians know “almost nothing” about Washington’s mother, for instance, Chernow manages to create a running theme about how young George was shaped by her cold, domineering ways.

To be fair, Chernow’s method is never “overly psychoanalytical,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. He quickly leaves Washington’s childhood to explore the Virginian’s rise to fame during the French and Indian War, when the “sharp-elbowed prodigy” fought for the British. During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s role extended beyond the battlefield. He managed his patrons in the new Congress as carefully as he did his own troops, and in many ways his “proud, stoical example mattered more than any individual battle could.” Yet the best parts of Chernow’s book are when he allows the reader to peek behind that facade, said Jeff Labrecque in Entertainment Weekly. “He makes excellent use of Washington’s own voice—the man’s angry letters are like thunderbolts.”

Nothing provoked Washington’s “legendary rage” more than his being accused of a base motive, said Andrew Cayton in The New York Times. That telling “prickliness,” more than actual modesty, explains the show of reluctance he made before accepting his election as president. Once in office, Washington appeared wary of taking sides, often playing one ambitious underling against another. He seems, in retrospect, to have been a “profoundly insecure” man. Though Chernow clearly admires Washington’s achievements as a general and a statesman, most readers will close this book with a diminished opinion of America’s first president.

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