David Herbert Donald won two Pulitzer Prizes, but neither was for his best book, Lincoln, a stunning effort widely regarded as one of the greatest biographies ever written. (In a review for The Christian Science Monitor, Gabor Boritt referred to it as “a masterwork,” and rightfully so.) Part of what made Lincoln great was Donald’s ability to trim and tuck the information at his disposal, turning what was left into something so well pruned and stated it was a delight for book lovers and Lincolnphiles alike. You can spend the time to find every known fact about Abraham Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean everything you’ve found is interesting, or helpful to your narrative.
There has developed among too many historians a certain strain of biography writing, wherein the author decides a life simply cannot be examined unless every conceivable piece of research is shoehorned into the text. I first noticed this with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Goodwin seemed desperate to finally climb out from under the shadow cast by her plagiarism, and because of that her book was packed so full there was little room for skillful writing. Team of Rivals eventually became thick, wooden, and impossible to finish.
There is telling a story, and then there’s beating that story into unconsciousness because you would hate to be reprimanded for skipping something. Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life often falls into the latter category, at times taking the unpleasant feel of a book with an inferiority complex.
When Chernow is good he’s great, brilliantly detailing General Washington’s battles during the Revolutionary War and his obvious intellectual and moral problems with slavery. (In particular, later passages about George and Martha Washington’s efforts to subvert Philadelphia’s slave laws make for interesting and bothersome reading.) But when Chernow is bad, he renders one of the more interesting lives in American history flavorless and repetitive.
For example, and these are but two examples, there are only so many times one can read that Washington frequented lavish dinners and enjoyed The Ladies. General Washington kept an eye on The Ladies in the room; he took note of The Ladies; he wrote diary entries about the quality of The Ladies in attendance; he mentioned The Ladies in letters to various so-and-sos. By the seventh or eighth time you feel your eyes rolling: Washington had a thing for chicks. We get it.
At various times there is a distinct feeling you’ve covered the material before but now, because there was a different letter dated later but on the same topic, it must be included. It needn’t, really; a simple “This pattern repeated itself throughout Washington’s life, and never escaped the notice of his more observant friends and colleagues” would have done the trick.
That said, I am loathe to give the impression Washington: A Life is without merit, because that is certainly not the case. Despite its problems with repetitiveness, this book will stand as a definitive Washington biography, and in terms of sheer research into the founding father, it is peerless. (Anyone using it for their own research will be richly rewarded.) For those who revere and obsess over Washington (Washingtonphiles?), Chernow’s effort should not be missed. And for those who could simply stand to learn more about our first president (including your author), it more than adequately serves the purpose, provided you’d like your big leap into the subject being over 900 pages long.