By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Scott Brick
Unquestionably, “Washington: A Life” is a well-researched biography of a pivotal hero in America’s history but, to this reviewer, it suffers from a common failing of Pulitzer Prize winning biographies. Much of what Ron Chernow writes is a recitation of facts with little of the color of its era. Every fact can be documented but, because motive is wrapped in a social and psychological context, it is practically impossible to recreate historical truth.
Chernow is a respected biographer. He has written biographies of J.P. Morgan, The Warburgs, John D. Rockefeller, Alexander Hamilton, and now “Washington: A Life”, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for biography.
Some character descriptions in Chernow’s book are ill-conceived. Describing a person as one with “intelligent eyes” lacks clarity and concreteness. What do “intelligent eyes” look like? In fairness, Chernow writes better descriptive phrases but any unworthy phrasing in a Pulitzer Prize winning book should be edited out. Like the recent Pulitzer Prize winning history of Cleopatra, Chernow slips into cliché, or a “just the facts” phrasing characteristic of a Dragnet TV detective.
When Chernow does stray from the facts, he sometimes sounds like an apologist for Washington, particularly in Washington’s inept foray into Indian issues of the 18th century. On the other hand, Chernow does not shrink from documented facts about Washington’s relationship with slavery in America. Washington is plainly a slave holder, albeit less punitive than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree. But, like Legree, Washington treats his slaves as property to be bought, and sold, and when they escape, tracked down, and punished. Chernow writes “Washington rarely whipped his slaves and tried to keep slave families together”. That makes Washington more humane than Simon Legree but Washington does not stand above the South’s generally accepted and wrong-headed social mores. Washington is a slave holder that is driven by his social environment, quest for landed wealth, and entry into the prestigious Virginia upper class. Washington initially forbade black Americans entry into the Continental’ Army and relented only when the revolution’s need for soldiers overcame his prejudice. Washington’s “warts” are blurred by Chernow’s idealization of a man who often seems blessed by luck as much as dint of effort.
Chernow’s characterization of Washington’s dalliance with Sally Fairfax (a married woman) as a non-sexual infatuation stretches credulity. Part of Chernow’s evidence of Washington’s platonic relationship is Martha Washington’s acceptance of Sally Fairfax as a personal friend rather than former paramour of George Washington. Chernow spends a great deal of time explaining how Washington led a life of image that is difficult to penetrate. As Chernow clearly explains, Washington assiduously represses emotions that boil beneath his facial expression; i.e. Washington could easily don a mask to hide romantic indiscretion. (Some say an affair never happened: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=sally%20fairfax&source=web&cd=7&sqi=2&ved=0CFcQFjAG&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.revolutionarywararchives.org%2Ffairfax.html&ei=XnhwT87QK6q42wXEi4jyAQ&usg=AFQjCNEPnDkLL0EA6GF1gQmBuZocnlqT5Q&sig2=PBbKWv7soMyMCJVLEIME1w)
Analysis of Washington’s generalship is recounted in both positive and negative comments from historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Lafayette, General Lee, British General Howe, and Alexander Hamilton. Chernow characterizes Washington as a careful planner that becomes flummoxed when the unexpected occurs. However, as leader of the American revolution, Chernow concretely reveals Washington’s resolve in a young country’s drive for freedom and independence. Washington’s military mistakes and weaknesses are outweighed by his strengths; i.e. every human being is flawed; Washington’s flaws humanize him. Chernow concretely describes Washington’s resilience when outwitted or defeated in battle; i.e. Chernow notes that Washington lost more battles than he won.
In the last four years of Washington’s second term, some of Washington’s worst character flaws are documented in letters to overseers of his properties in Virginia. One surmises a part of the cause for these letters is Washington’s advanced age, personal financial strain, tremendous political pressure from a fragmenting administration, and newspaper aspersions on his character.
Without doubt, Chernow deserves the Pulitzer Prize for this mass synthesized history of George Washington. He provides fascinating glimpses of George Washington, the surveyor, the slave holder, the Virginia Scion, the first President of the United States. Information about America’s great revolution is worth a near 42 hour listen. Like Schiff’s biography of “Cleopatra”, a reader/listener does learn a great deal about documented facts of a great historical figure. But Washington, like Cleopatra to this reviewer, remains a mystery. [contact-form-7 id=”1710″ title=”Contact form 1″]