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BOOK REVIEW

A new generation’s Washington

Bio humanizes a colossal figure

By Claude R. Marx
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2010

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Because of his seminal role in American history, George Washington is the subject of a monumental biography every generation, to say nothing of the shorter and more derivative works that pop up.

The challenge facing his biographers, even those as acclaimed and talented as Ron Chernow, is embodied in the phrase “everything that can be said has been, though not everyone has said it.’’

Chernow rises to the challenge. He doesn’t break new ground, but his comprehensive and engagingly written “Washington: A Life’’ humanizes (without trivializing) an often impenetrable figure. Washington’s stoic reserve at the center of events characterized by intense emotional tumult adds to a biographer’s obstacles. The author notes in the prelude that, “So adept was Washington at masking these turbulent emotions behind his fabled reserve that he ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved.’’

There are numerous references to his obsession with clothes, punctuality, manners, and order. Chernow shows how Washington used those both to craft a dignified image and to keep people at a distance. His demeanor was such that John Adams suggested that instead of president he should be called His Most Benign Highness.

Like many men of the 18th century, Washington was reluctant to add new people to his inner circle, and when he did his relationships were “seldom of the candid or confessional type.’’

The book is most revelatory when the author depicts Washington the man, as opposed to Washington the soldier or Washington the statesman. However, those wanting a précis of Washington’s military and political careers won’t be disappointed. The book touches on all the key points of those periods, giving vivid details of the horrors of war and the drama of political maneuverings during the nation’s founding. The author is especially adept at describing the complexities and nuances of his subject’s relationships with friend and foe alike.

Chernow, the author of an acclaimed biography of Alexander Hamilton and a strong critic of Thomas Jefferson, describes the rivalry between the two Cabinet members as follows:

“Jefferson never doubted Washington’s integrity or patriotism and could hardly claim that the man who had resigned his commission at the end of the war and rejected pleas to become a king harbored royal ambitions. So he ended up explaining Washington’s support for Hamilton’s policies [such as the creation of a national bank] by suggesting that the treasury secretary, a cunning mastermind, had duped the credulous president into supporting programs he did not fully comprehend.’’

Because so much has already been written about Washington’s professional successes, Chernow has a hard time breaking much new ground. That is why this book is less satisfying than his biographies of Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller.

In addition, Chernow occasionally bogs down his narrative by going into great detail about tangential subjects, such as Washington’s dental problems. That wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the book didn’t exceed 900 pages. Walter Isaacson’s 2003 biography of Benjamin Franklin did justice to another extraordinarily important American founder in under 500 pages. At times less really is more.

Those shortcomings detract from what is otherwise an important piece of scholarship and may mean that “Washington: A Life’’ doesn’t get as wide an audience as it deserves.

Claude R. Marx can be reached at crmarx@aol.com.

WASHINGTON: A Life

By Ron Chernow

Penguin, 904 pp., illustrated, $40