“Washington: The Indispensable Man” is James Thomas Flexner’s single-volume abridgment of his epic four-volume series on George Washington published between 1965 and 1972. Flexner wasted little time accommodating those who implored him to author a biography accessible to a wider audience, and as a result this single-volume work was published in 1974. It has been widely read and well-admired ever since.
In his effort to downsize the much longer series into a one-volume account of Washington’s life, Flexner succeeded admirably. “Washington: The Indispensable Man” is an engaging, articulate and clear rendition of Washington’s life from his humble beginning in Westmoreland County, Virginia to his death at Mount Vernon in the final days of 1799. Flexner’s style of writing in this book is more consistently contemporary than in his earlier, longer series and this book proves eminently readable throughout.
In contrast to his four-volume series, this biography contains dozens of helpful maps, charts and illustrations which serve to bring the words to life in a way the original volumes could not. And although it would surely have been tempting to have created this biography by assembling bits and pieces of his earlier works, the text (with few exceptions) seems to have been freshly drafted, and with a new pen.
Flexner did a remarkable job of distilling 1,800+ pages of text into a volume 80% less spacious. He had originally intended to write a single volume that would capture the essence of Washington but quickly concluded it could not be done well (and on that basis the original multi-volume series was born). To later take the opposite approach must have been daunting, but I cannot recall any meaningful historical event or relationship of Washington’s which did not survive the translation into the shorter book.
What was somewhat lost in Flexner’s condensation, however, is much of the vivid, colorful description of Washington’s life, his multi-dimensional personal relationships, and the psychology which drove many of his actions. Where the multi-volume series put the reader inside Washington’s head for much of the journey, this single-volume account feels more like watching the first president from across the room – close enough to be an eyewitness to momentous events, but not quite close enough to read his mind.
In addition, Flexner is still not quite the storyteller I encountered in Ron Chernow or (yes, I’m skipping ahead a bit) the masterful David McCullough. Flexner seems to make little attempt at times to smooth the segues or polish a paragraph which is a bit sterile due to its abbreviation from the original, longer and more descriptive concept. This book is less fanciful and elegant than many other biographies, and is more “matter-of-fact” than his earlier works, but unapologetically so. It is perhaps the most cleanly-structured and well-organized of the one volume biographies of Washington.
Overall, Flexner’s four-volume series on Washington remains, for me, the “Gold Standard” for biographies written about our first president. In hindsight, I’m not sure what Flexner could have penned in this “abbreviated” volume that would have left me as fully satisfied as I was with the original masterpiece. And having now re-lived Washington’s life for the sixth time in as many weeks, it might be a real miracle if I read a biography of Washington that left me as energized and excited as the first of those encounters.
For someone interested in learning about Washington’s life but who is uncommitted to embracing four volumes, “Washington: The Indispensable Man” is a very good choice. But be aware it represents a compromise from the groundbreaking series from which it was borne, and there are one or two other single-volume biographies which might offer a comparably exciting journey.
Overall rating: 4 stars