Friday, February 26, 2021

The Bacon Presidential Library Vol. 5: Washington: A Life

 Washington: A Life - Ron Chernow

Penguin Books

928 Pages

When I began this project to read biographies of each president, I figured at some point, my OCD would kick in and I’d have a far longer list than necessary when it was all said and done. I’m nearly two months into this project and this is the fifth book I’ve read, while I’m about a third of the way through a sixth. I initially began with James Flexner’s four volume biography with the understanding that those books would be among the most difficult of the Washington books. I still have a pile of books to wade through covering our first president.

The second biography (and fifth book) of George Washington is Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. Roughly half the length of the totality of Flexner’s extensive work, Chernow’s book would seem to not be as good a biography as the earlier one. And if you thought that, you would be wrong. Chernow’s biography is a comprehensive look at Washington’s life that eliminates some of the tedium that bogs down Flexner’s work, but expounds upon some of the events that defined Washington’s actions. Chernow also writes more in a colloquial manner than Flexner, making it more approachable for the modern reader.

Chernow is a storyteller. He doesn’t simply rehash dates and dried errata as he explores the life of our first president. His writing reminds me of David McCullough’s, which makes the book flow rather easily. While it didn’t make the reading time decrease by much, it did make the reading more enjoyable and more relatable.

One of the major things I liked about Chernow’s book was its differing style from Flexner’s book. Flexner wrote almost exclusively in a linear fashion, going through Washington’s life event after event. Sometimes, he would allow a little foreshadowing if a particular event directly influenced an event later in his life. Still, this was a rarity. Chernow, on the other hand, tends to write thematically. While still maintaining a significantly chronological retelling of Washington’s life, he will unravel a theme that seemed to be constant for the man and explore those interactions across the decades.

At the same time, Chernow gives the reader more information as to how Washington’s peers and subordinates came to their decisions in relation to the actions of Washington. This gives the reader a deeper understanding of the dynamics of some of the situations that defined the birth of the United States and the evolution of leader George Washington.

If there’s been one disappointment in both biographies that I’ve read on George Washington, it’s that Marquis de Lafayette gets so little exploration by either author. With Washington having no children of his own, he saw Lafayette as a surrogate son, and had a special affinity with him. Such an influential relationship should have been explored deeper. We were given plenty of information on Washington’s relationships with Sally Fairfax and Eliza Powel, while Lafayette is relegated to a minor role.

I liked reading Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. His writing makes this book any easy way to learn more about George Washington. Don’t be intimidated by the length of the book. It is well written and will give you a great deal of insight on Washington. It is worth the time it takes to read it.

Craig Bacon may have wildly underestimated the amount of time it will take to complete this project. Yet he perseveres.

Next Up: Washington by Douglas Southall Freeman (abridged by Richard Harwell)