Title: Washington: A Life
Author: Ron Chernow
Narrator: Scott Brick
Audiobook Length: 41 hours, 57 minutes
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 5 October 2010
“In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America’s first president.
Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man. A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master.
At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.
In this unique biography, Ron Chernow takes us on a page-turning journey through all the formative events of America’s founding. With a dramatic sweep worthy of its giant subject, Washington is a magisterial work from one of our most elegant storytellers.”
Thoughts on the Novel: Ron Chernow knows his research and writes one impressive biography. Granted, his chosen subject was one hell of an impressive man. Washington always looms just a bit larger than every other founding father and president, but it is not until Chernow reveals the details where the reasons why this is become obvious. Of even greater importance to a biography of any magnitude, Chernow does not rest on Washington’s laurels. It would be so easy to focus on the lengthy list of accomplishments Washington achieved during his lifetime, but Chernow devotes just as much time to his foibles as to his successes. This balanced review does more to humanize this larger-than-life man than any fable about the cherry tree.
How to describe this massive tome of a biography? I don’t think you can. There is SO much information between its pages, and all of it is interesting. From his humble beginnings and lack of formal education to his rancorous relationship with his mother to his eye for all the pretty ladies to his role in starting the French and Indian War to his life as a plantation owner to his life-long struggles with money, Chernow details it all. Yet, he never bogs down into the details. For example, Chernow does not rehash every single battle of the Revolutionary War in which Washington played a part, nor does he detail every single decision made during his presidency. Instead, Chernow focuses on the decisions which played key roles in deciding the country’s fate and the obstacles Washington faced at almost every turn, which is a daunting task in its own right given just what he faced.
If there is one thing that you can take away from reading Washington: A Life it is the fact that there are very few men in history who could have done what Washington did. He had the weight of the country on his shoulders for most of his life and never let the pressure show. He sacrificed essentially his entire life to serve the public at great physical and monetary cost. He did so knowing that history did indeed have its eye on him and that whatever he did would be remembered forever, and this shows in his every action and public decision made on behalf of the country. We ask a lot of our presidents for their four-to-eight years in office, and we watch them age drastically during that time. Washington gave forty-five years; the toll he bore had to have been unbearable and yet he did it with a grace and dignity that remains his greatest legacy.
As for the details of that service, there are key points that struck me as particularly powerful. He faced a traitor’s death were the British to have caught him. He had to fight with and for a collection of men who had no loyalty to him or to the country. He had to do this knowing that he had no food or clothing, no gunpowder or ammunition, and no pay with which to entice these men to stay after their contracts ended. He ended up earning their loyalty, but he fought a harder and longer battle to provision his men than he ever did against the British.
We take it for granted now the rituals used during political proceedings and certain political events, yet Washington had no examples he could use for his own events. Not only was he the first person to ever hold the office, but what he did would establish how future presidents would hold office – a fact of which he was keenly aware. Every action he took during his two terms in office were designed to avoid comparisons to monarchical rule and were done with the future in mind. It is an astonishing feat of self-awareness and selflessness that still amazes me.
As if that was not enough, Washington had to battle the political storms constantly brewing around him without getting caught up in the storm and damaging the country – the one thing he held above every ideal. The fighting while he was in office was particularly brutal and probably his most dangerous, as the two sides fought over how the country itself should be run. It is also this battle that leads me to declare that the founding fathers were some of the very first Mean Girls. (Holy shit. It is a wonder we ever became a powerful nation the way Jefferson and his Republicans sniped and defamed Hamilton and his Federalists and vice versa. It also makes our current political issues seem like just another day in Washington because really, nothing has changed in the way the two parties interact.)
No matter how interesting the subject, and really, you cannot get much better than George Washington, a biographer must still write well in order to maintain a reader’s interest. This is something at which Chernow excels, as he balances fact with supposition, negativity versus gushy adoration, and descriptive passages versus direct sources. His sentences can be a bit long, but it is obvious he chose each word with care. He very rarely strays beyond the point at hand, keeping tangents to a minimum. It speaks volumes about the author when you wish a book this long was even longer just so you could learn even more about the subject, and I finished Washington wishing there were more to it.
While many people tend to shy away from big books and especially nonfiction big books, to ignore Chernow’s Washington biography would be a shame. Not only is it supremely well-written and full of fascinating tidbits about George Washington, Hamilton fans will get a kick out of the connections between the two. There is a surprising amount of crossover, but I find the parts which show where the two diverge even more interesting. Chernow has a healthy respect for Washington that never borders into fawning, as some have said about Chernow’s Hamilton biography. (At the same time, he does not hide his feelings very well. Chernow’s opinions of John Adams are quite hilarious in their blatant disregard.) Washington: A Life is a great biography and a perfect alternative to round out the Hamilton craze.
Thoughts on the Audiobook: Having listened to Mr. Brick narrate for over 120 hours now, I can definitely say that he is one of my favorite narrators. There is something about his no-nonsense approach to his performance that I really enjoy. His voice is neither too loud nor too soft, and he always captures my attention and maintains it. While he is not big on differentiating between voices, he still makes it easy to distinguish between characters. In Washington, he foregoes voices altogether, but this in no way diminishes his performance. In fact, he allows his passion for Washington to rule his performance, and that excitement only serves to add to the drama of Washington’s life. That passion may be entirely fabricated, but he sells it as his own. There are very few narrators to whom I would want to listen for a forty-two hour biography, but after Mr. Brick’s commanding performance, I would listen to him narrate just about anything.