Reviews for Washington : A Life


Booklist Reviews 2010 September #1
"*Starred Review* With so much that can be said--and said positively--about this magisterial biography, it is difficult not to write a review as long as the book itself. Given the distinction of the author, who wrote, among other single and collective biographies, the glowingly reviewed Alexander Hamilton (2004), readers can safely assume from the outset that what lies ahead of them is a vastly enlightening, overwhelmingly engaging treatment of a great man. The subject of the book needs only, by way of identification, the one word that Chernow uses as his title: Washington. Another book on Washington? is a question rendered pointless by this one, which happens to be the author's masterpiece. Definitive Washington is the point and effect of this biography. Our first president is thought of as more marble statue than living, hurting, loving human; however, Chernow's Washington stands not in the opposite corner as hot-blooded and animated. Washington spent a lifetime practicing control of his passions and emotions; his innate virtues, undenied and even celebrated here, were sharpened and focused by the man's suppression of a natural volatility. "His gift of silence" and of "inspired simplicity," as the author so aptly terms Washington's strongest suits, supported his consequent leadership as general and as president." Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.

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BookPage Reviews 2010 October
A man with a vision of what the United States could become

George Washington was the indispensable Founding Father. He was unanimously chosen four straight times to lead: as commander in chief of the Continental Army; as president of the Constitutional Convention; and for two consecutive terms as president of the United States. Even in his retirement, the Senate unanimously confirmed him as head of the new Army. All of this was accomplished as he set precedents and dealt with opposition from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others. Now the brilliant biographer Ron Chernow, author of the National Book Award-winning The House of Morgan, demonstrates in his magnificently written, richly detailed and always compelling Washington: A Life just how and why his subject attained such an exalted status. Chernow draws on the 60 volumes of Washington’s letters and diaries as well as letters written to him, state papers from the period and the latest Washington scholarship. We now know more about him than his family, friends and other contemporaries did.

From an early age, Washington was ambitious. Although he was not born into a family of the upper gentry and did not attend college, he was not exactly a self-made man. Conscientious and self-educated in many ways, it was the untimely deaths of his father and half-brother and his marriage to Martha Custis that thrust him into the top tier of Virginia’s plantation society. Chernow’s narrative traces his evolution from a brave soldier on the frontier with a consuming desire for fame, money and status to a tough-minded businessman and a hard-driving slave owner, and then into a soldier and statesman with a mastery of political skills.

Chernow’s nuanced portrait shows that Washington generally was a realist and problem solver as well as a shrewd and subtle reader of other people. He certainly made errors of judgment, particularly during the war, and without extraordinary help from France, American history might have turned out differently. But Washington had a commitment to a greater vision than many others of what the United States could become.

No other part of Washington’s life concerned him so much as being an owner of many slaves. Chernow devotes much space to his long ambivalence between abolitionism and his economic well-being based on slavery. Despite the Washingtons’ strong personal positive feelings about individual slaves, any doubts Washington had about slavery were expressed only in private letters, never publicly. He was reluctant to break up slaves’ families, yet he did not feel the same way when it came to selling slaves. Of course, by freeing his slaves in his will, Washington took a step all other slave-owning Founders failed to take.

This magisterial volume covers the father of our country in all aspects, from his difficult relationship with his mother to his inability to live frugally, his obsession with Mount Vernon, his exemplary leadership in war and peace, and much more. Chernow’s latest accomplishment is historical biography at its best.

 

Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.

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Choice Reviews 2011 July
This is the best of recent Washington biographies, but it still comes up short of exposing the whole man. Although judiciously weighing in on some foibles, the book continues the hagiographic tradition. Chernow clearly depicts family life, plantation management, and slaves. Less satisfying are Washington's relationships with men of his officer corps, which are very revealing to anyone who cares to investigate this area. There are significant gaps--for example, in analysis of the politics of command, Washington's role in the French and Indian War, and the war of attrition in New Jersey (winter and spring 1777). The author is too apologetic of the few not so brilliant military decisions, such as at the Battle of Monmouth. Chernow is given to rounding off and overgeneralizing his evaluations, of which in-depth research would have afforded more sharp edges. A fertile field pertaining to Washington's great disdain for the common soldier awaits researchers. The real Washington still demands a diligent and objective biographer. Meanwhile, this large volume has enlightening moments and is entertaining. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels, general and academic. Copyright 2011 American Library Association.

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Library Journal Reviews 2010 May #2
With so many Washington biographies, what makes this one distinctive, aside from its being written by a National Book Award-winning biographer? Chernow aims to sweep aside our dusty image of the first President and reveal the dashing warrior and depths of passion we didn't know were there. This should be top-flight; an advance glance suggests genial writing. With a ten- to 12-city tour. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.

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Library Journal Reviews 2010 August #1

In this cradle-to-grave biography of the Founding Father, notable biographer Chernow (Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller) thoroughly recounts how Washington rose to prominence in the French and Indian War, parlayed that early heroism into international fame as general of the Continental army during the American Revolution, and, as America's first President, unified a young nation and shaped its government--and he offers deeper explorations of, for example, Washington's cold relationship with his mother, his heavy reliance on younger devotees such as Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, and his contradictory actions regarding slavery. Chernow's Washington is a reluctant celebrity who perpetually tries to retire from national service but refuses to turn his back on an embryonic republican country struggling with its newfound freedom. The narrative relies heavily on Washington's papers, but Chernow also liberally cites other primary sources and previous biographies. While objective for the most part, he occasionally offers well-grounded opinions on Washington's character and political and military actions. VERDICT This broadly and deeply researched work is a major addition to Washington scholarship--every era should have its new study of him--and it should appeal to informed lay readers and undergraduates interested in stepping beyond the typical textbook treatment.--Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia

[Page 90]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.

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Publishers Weekly Annex Reviews

In his introduction, veteran biographer Chernow is clear about his goals. Using the recent "explosion of research," he wants to render George Washington "real" and "credible," to replace "frosty respect" with "visceral appreciation." In many respects, Chernow succeeds. He gives us a Washington who starts with limited education and means and, through a remarkable combination of timely deaths, an incredible capacity for hard work, a shrewd marriage, astonishing physical hardiness and courage, a propensity for land speculation, and a gift for finding influential patrons, transforms himself into a soldier, well-to-do planter, local official, and eventually the only real choice to command the Continental army, preside over the Constitutional Convention, and serve as the first president. Chernow makes familiar scenes fresh (like the crossing of the Delaware) and expertly brings the provisional revolutionary and early Republican eras to life. Along the way, however, he mistakes "visceral" for ardent; while he never hides Washington's less than saintly moments or shirks the vexed question of slavery, he often seems to ignore the data he's collected. Examples of shady dealing are quickly followed by tales of Washington's unimpeachable ethics or impeccable political savvy. At times it feels as if Chernow, for all his careful research and talent for synthesis, is in the grip of a full-scale crush. The result is a good book that would have been great if better edited, and if Chernow had trusted that Washington's many merits, even when accompanied by his faults, would speak for themselves. (Oct.)

[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC

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