By Chet Yarbrough
Washington: A Life
By Ron Chernow
Narrated by Scott Brick
Ronald Chernow (American writer, journalist, historian, and biographer, Pulitzer Prize winer.)
Fans of Ron Chernow, other reviewers, most readers, and the Pulitzer Prize panel of judges, obviously disagree with this review; not that Chernow would care.
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.
In spite of its Pulitzer standing, some phrasing in “Washington A Life” is amateurish.
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 in “Washington…” but any phrasing unworthy of a Pulitzer Prize winning book should be edited out.
Much of what Chernow writes is a recitation of facts with little of the color of its era.
Unquestionably, “Washington: A Life” is a well-researched biography of a pivotal hero in America’s history. but it suffers from a common failing of more memorable biographies. Every fact may be documented but motive is obscure because motive is wrapped in a social and human context that is missing.
Like the Pulitzer Prize winning history of Cleopatra, Chernow slips into cliché, or a “just the facts” phrasing characteristic of a Dragnet TV detective.
When Chernow strays from the facts, he sounds like an apologist for Washington. Chernow misses the essence of Washington’s rationalization of slavery’s contradiction of humanity.
Washington is plainly a slave holder, albeit less punitive than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional 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 better than Simon Legree but Washington does not stand above that era’s generally accepted and wrong-headed social mores. Washington’s “warts” are blurred in Chernow’s biography.
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 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.
Putting these negative comments aside, Chernow provides a lot of facts about Washington’s life that are not generally known. Information about America’s great revolution makes Chernow’s near-1000 page book worth listening to, but far from understanding America’s first President.
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.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (American composer, lyricist, rapper, singer, actor, playwright, and producer of Broadway Musicals In the Heights and Hamilton)
Chernow needs another Lin-Manuel Miranda to contextualize his uninspiring biography of Washington.