24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Superb Popular History,
This review is from: Washington: A Life (Hardcover)
Chernow's "Washington: A Life" really does not add much that is new or fresh to our understanding of Washington the man, although his inclusion of the recently catalogued Washington letters, artfully woven throughout the book, is long-overdue, refreshing, and welcome. Rather, what Chernow has done is set himself the task of finally collating the massive amount of scholarship on the "American Cincinnatus" into a unified explanation of Washington as we understand him. And I am pleased to report that he succeeds admirably, producing a solid, well-researched, engaging work of popular history freely accessible to most readers. And this alone is no mean feat. But what also stands out for me is the tone of the work.
I am not going to summarize the main threads of the book's arguments since the other reviewers have done so thoroughly and well. Suffice it to say, the other factor making this book so grand is its overall sense of balance. Chernow simply refuses to resurrect the breathless myth-culture of President Washington and present it as "fact," but neither does he diminish the man's amazing accomplishments. There is also no gloss of Washington's often paradoxical - even sometimes Quixotic - nature and the more unpleasant aspects of his character and life, not the least of which was his not-so-well sublimated vision of himself as a "Man of Destiny." Like Burlingame's "Lincoln" I reviewed a long time back, what Chernow produces is a person of "whole cloth," not an icon, and a person who had routine flashes of a certain kind of unique political genius and possessing what was, at heart, an elevating, evolving political conscience and sense of his place in history at exactly the right time and moment in the tumultuous history of the early American experiment.
This book is not a valentine or a love-letter, and not a hatchet job. It is popular history done well, the use of sources measured, balanced, and up-to-date, and the clearest biographical picture we have yet, I think, of Washington presented again to the American public at large as he most likely was. While it is not a microscopic biography, neither are there any curious omissions or leaps in Chernow's narrative of this fascinating life. Just first-rate all the way around.
Readable, engaging, comprehensive, and lavishly researched. It would be difficult to ask for more.
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Initial post: Jan 20, 2011 3:32:59 AM PST
What is your definition of "popular history"?
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 24, 2011 10:36:06 AM PST
Well, I would say that "popular" history is prepared with a mass audience in mind as opposed to more narrow, focused or theoretical topics which tend to have a more limited appeal. Which is not to say that one is "better" than the other. Is that helpful?
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 24, 2011 10:40:08 AM PST
Oh, and by the way, quite by accident, I happened to run into one of your comments on another reader's one star review. I thought you did a wonderful job.
Posted on Jan 25, 2011 7:51:26 AM PST
Thanks for responding. Hopefully the book will prove "popular" in that sense.
I think Chernow deserves credit for plowing through the Washington papers, which have now been released in a more comprehensive version than before. I think it's this immersion in all the details in Washington's life that gives Chernow a little more clarity in terms of how Washington thought than I've seen before (i.e. his explanation of how he think Washington squares with one event is consistent with his thinking and attitudes in other areas). While some are deriding this as being psychological history (i.e. speculating on thought we could not otherwise know), I really get the sense Chernow was really able to understand how Washington viewed the world better than other biographies I've read, giving me a much deeper understanding of him (note: I've not read the multivolume biggies, so maybe this is only new to me).
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 27, 2011 7:27:53 AM PST
Honestly, I agree with you. I think this book is a "tour de force" and I found no odd forays into "psychohistory."
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