“Washington: A Life” is acclaimed author and historian Ron Chernow’s most recent book, for which he received a 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He has also written biographies on John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Alexander Hamilton and is particularly well-known for his inaugural book “The House of Morgan.”
This is the longest single-volume biography on Washington in my library and is the second best-read among major available titles. Because this biography clocks in at three times the length of Ellis’ “His Excellency,” it is no surprise that Chernow’s work loses a few readers to that of Elllis (which I recently read and reviewed). However, among all biographies of George Washington, Chernow’s appears to be the best loved and most highly-rated.
Having plowed through 2,100 pages on Washington in the previous three weeks, the prospect of biting off another 800+ pages so soon with Chernow’s biography was a bit daunting. However, my fears were soon allayed as I realized I was probably reading the best biography authored in modern times (perhaps ever) on Washington.
Compellingly written in a fluid, articulate and descriptive style, Chernow’s book perfectly demonstrates his masterful storytelling skills. Although I didn’t note much previously undiscovered information about Washington, Chernow’s style of writing, the book’s nearly perfect pace and the conclusions he provided toward the end of the biography lent a complementary and invaluable voice to the many others which arrived before his pen was put to paper.
What I particularly liked about this book was that Chernow’s manner of narrating almost made it seem this was the first time I’d read about Washington…despite this being my third cradle-to-grave walk through Washington’s life in about as many weeks. Although it was difficult to avoid constantly drawing comparisons to the other biographies on Washington I’d just read, the outcome was, more often than not, favorable to Chernow.
In only two areas did I feel a slight preference for Flexner’s earlier, more lengthy work. First, at about a thousand pages more weighty than “Washington: A Life,” Flexner’s four-volume series often provided more detail than Chernow could afford. Some of that detail, in hindsight, was helpful in forming a more robust, complete image of Washington and putting the reader fully inside Washington’s head, particularly relating to his closest personal relationships.
Second, Flexner organized his narrative in a more rigorously chronological fashion. Where Chernow’s work seemed more thematically-oriented with a less-strict adherence to timeline, I was able to follow simultaneous story lines more easily with Flexner, and often with more historical context.
To its great credit, however, I found in “Washington: A Life” so many perceptive, insightful or deeply clever observations that before many pages had passed, I re-started the book from the beginning, this time with a commitment to chronicling those passages which were particularly memorable or well-conceived. I ended up with a collection of nearly two hundred of these special items to savor.
My perspective reduced to a single point, Chernow has struck the perfect balance with this biography between the much lengthier (though more descriptive) work by James Thomas Flexner and the solid, but too-brief, biography “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph Ellis.
If I were forced to “save” for posterity just one work on Washington, out of a reverence for the classics I might have to defer to the multi-volume work of James Thomas Flexner. But if I had to recommend just one biography of Washington to a friend who hungered for an exceedingly well-written, insightful and astonishingly enjoyable presidential biography, I would unwaveringly recommend “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow.
Overall Rating: 5 stars