four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
By: 
Ron Chernow
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A Life

A-WashingtonRon Chernow is the author of several biographies and works on American history, including Alexander Hamilton ( 3 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2004) and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998).

The Topic: Few figures in American history are as important and as elusive as our first president. Inveterate biographer Ron Chernow marshals decades of scholarship, as well as new sources, to present the birth-to-death story of the Founding Father. Instead of vacillating, Chernow presents the facts and reaches definite conclusions about Washington: he was a lackluster general but a subtly brilliant politician; he was both more and less religious than today's partisans would like; he knew he looked good on a horse; and his famous reserve may have, in part, resulted from his fear of spitting out his dentures. While trying to come to a complete portrait of any historical figure night be considered hubris, if anyone has earned the right to try, it is Chernow.
Penguin. 904 pages. $40. ISBN: 9781594202667

Daily Beast 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This is the real George Washington, as close as we can come to understanding a historical leader who made such an effort to protect his privacy and conceal his personal thoughts. ... This is a book for every American--a masterpiece of biography." Gen. Wesley K. Clark

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Chernow displays a breadth of knowledge about Washington that is nothing short of phenomenal. ... Though Douglas Southall Freeman, for my money, still owns the franchise in Washington studies with his magisterial seven-volume biography (written between 1948 and 1957), never before has Washington been rendered so tangibly in such a smart, tenaciously researched volume as Chernow's opus." Douglas Brinkley

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Ron Chernow wrenches back the curtain to reveal the real Washington, a general almost bereft of tactical ability yet a politician full of penetrating strategic insight. ... By the end of this well-researched, well-written and absolutely definitive biography, readers will conclude that George Washington was indeed a genius and a titan, but for very different reasons than the world thought at the time." Andrew Roberts

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Relying on new research from the University of Virginia (which has been organizing Washington's papers), he makes excellent use of Washington's own voice--the man's angry letters are like thunderbolts--and turns constitutional debates and bureaucratic infighting into riveting reading. It turns out Washington didn't really hover above the fray, and in Chernow's remarkable book, readers can finally look him in the eye." Jeff Labrecque

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"[The] historic Washington summons comparison to the great contemporary nation builder, Nelson Mandela. Before reading Chernow's thought-provoking biography, yoking these two world-historic figures would never have occurred to me." John Strawn

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Chernow concludes with Washington's apotheosis, best expressed in the memorable funeral oration that placed him ‘First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.' This splendid biography's great achievement is to humanize George Washington while demonstrating why he retains this pre-eminent position." Alan Cate

Critical Summary

Several critics praised Washington: A Life as a masterpiece, but even those who didn't commended Chernow's mastery of his material. At about 900 pages, the author has clearly uncovered plenty of facts about the Founding Father, but what reviewers really admired were the author's persuasive and original conclusions. Authorities on the Revolutionary era not only learned new aspects of Washington's life but also saw the American Cincinnatus in new and different ways. If the reviews thus far are any indication, the impact of this biography will be, like Washington's, both tremendous and long lasting.

Cited by the Critics

Douglas Southall Freeman's seven-volume biography (1848–1957) has also been published and is still in print, in an abridged form at 896 pages (1993). Much of the focus of the book is on military history; Chernow's biography is a more balanced one-volume look at Washington.