It seemed appropriate to begin with James Flexner’s four-volume series on Washington. Despite historical acclaim, this series is not particularly well-read these days, perhaps owing to the popularity of more modern (and shorter) reads, Flexner’s excellent single-volume synopsis of the series published as “Washington: The Indispensable Man” and the relative difficulty of obtaining the four books economically. However, I presumed no other source would lay the groundwork on Washington as rigorously.
“George Washington: The Forge of Experience (1732-1775)” covers roughly the first two-thirds of Washington’s life, ending at the earliest stages of the American Revolution. The book was written with an often dry, now-dated style but provides a remarkably thorough account of Washington’s formative years, tracing his steps in detail from early childhood into his mid-40s. This was a fascinating period for Washington, and his first four decades make my own seem rather bland by comparison.
It quickly becomes clear to the reader that the biography was scrupulously well-researched, though it occasionally lapses into too much detail on seemingly trivial matters. But for me, this isn’t where the pace occasionally became plodding: that was reserved for those not infrequent moments when I had to pull out my dictionary…
Besides telling the story of Washington’s early accomplishments and tribulations, this volume provides liberal doses of insightful analysis and interpretation, but without being haphazardly laced with the author’s bias or opinion.
Particularly interesting was the relationship between Washington and his mother (she could hardly be described as a supportive, empowering role model) and his often inept attempts to promote his burgeoning military career with the assistance of various Virginia politicians of the day. One hardly suspects a future president in the making when eavesdropping on Washington’s awkward pleas, admonitions and diatribes with various colonial officials and military superiors.
Overall, this volume is not intended as a fast-paced review of Washington’s early life. For someone looking for an easy read-on-the-beach, this book may not be the right choice. But for the committed reader intent on getting to know Washington during his earliest and most formative years, this is a terrific book.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars