The Generalist

Chris Beneke

Gordon Wood’s favorable review (“The Real Washington at Last”) of Ron Chernow’s massive new biography of George Washington appears in the latest New York Review of Books.* For a man who said so little and wrote so economically, Washington has inspired an avalanche of words. As Wood notes:

[W]e now have assessments of Washington’s political philosophy, his constitutionalism, his religion, his private life, his portraits, his leadership, his physical appearance, his interest in the Virginia backcountry, his concern for the decorative arts, his enlightenment, his place in popular culture, his view of the Union, and his relations with his wife Martha, Lafayette, James Madison, Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, Benedict Arnold, his other generals, and various other revolutionaries. There are studies of Washington as a president, as a slaveholder, as a man of the West, as a general, as a partisan fighter, as an American symbol, as the modern Cincinnatus, as a Freemason, as a young man, as a patriarch, as a visionary, as a spymaster, as the architect and owner of Mount Vernon, as the designer of the nation’s capital, as the French saw him, and as the master manipulator of public opinion.

Wood’s title isn’t ironic. He contends that Chernow gets us closer to the “real Washington” than any of the legions of earlier biographers. Chernow is the beneficiary of a series of herculean archival efforts, including the ongoing project at the University of Virginia to publish all of Washington’s papers, which will eventually consist of ninety volumes.

Chernow benefits from another fortuitous circumstance, according to Wood—he’s not an academic. It isn’t that academic historians write especially bad. By comparison with other fields, our prose is not wholly dull, nor completely impenetrable. The problem lies, says Wood, in our tendency to write for one another and to publish books on “specialized problems” that few readers outside of History Departments will ever comprehend, never mind enjoy at the beach.

As Wood notes, we share this internal orientation with chemists and literary theorists alike. Like theirs, ours is an “accumulative science.” We are sunk in its immensity. “[T]he monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history-writing to the nonacademic historians and independent scholars who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists.”

Not Chernow. Wood says that he writes well and knows the secondary literature. The result is a very big and illuminating portrait of our national icon of sincerity, the general who always managed to elude his pursuers.**


* Barnet Schecter’s book, George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps is also reviewed here. But the focus is on Chernow.

** For a sharp and less reverent account of both Chernow’s book and Washington’s life, see Jill Lepore’s “His Highness” in The New Yorker (September 27). Lepore isn’t persuaded that Chernow has made Washington more comprehensible.