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For American biographers, George Washington is the great white whale. Beginning with Parson Weems and his fictional cherry tree, they have sought to pierce the founding father's wax-museum façade to illuminate the real man who led a stunning upset of the world's greatest military power and then followed it up by creating the template of our government.
More than two centuries after Washington's death, the landmark, multivolume biographies of the 20th century have begun to yellow at the edges. More recent works, such as Joseph J. Ellis' "His Excellency" (2004), have taken smaller bites by focusing on this or that theme of Washington's life.
Enter Ron Chernow, the National Book Award-winning author of "The House of Morgan" and, most recently, "Alexander Hamilton." Drawing in part on a newly edited set of Washington's papers at the University of Virginia, Chernow's "Washington: A Life" seeks to be the authoritative modern biography of our first president.
Chernow's Washington is the right man at the right place at the right time, a curious mix of vanity and humility, a man of high ethics who refused to let his flaws derail him from his quest to achieve his goals. As a general, Washington was hardly a genius, but he was able to learn from his mistakes and hold the army together by the force of his leadership. As president, Washington firmly pursued the creation of a powerful federal government while somehow remaining above the petty political infighting that marked the nation's formative years. Then, at the completion of each task, he set perhaps the most important precedent of all. He stepped aside.
He was, Chernow argues, the Revolution's "indispensable man."
The book succeeds, but not necessarily because of groundbreaking revelations about Washington's life. Ellis also drew on the University of Virginia project; not coincidentally, the heated emotions running beneath Washington's cool exterior are a common thread between the two books.
But where Ellis affects a professorial tone, Chernow has a crisp, clear style, and once again his depth of research helps him become a master of details -- the small, vivid moments that bring the larger themes to life.
It's one thing to read about Washington's ability to compartmentalize his beliefs about freedom and slavery. It's another to see that many of Mount Vernon's slaves were "jammed into crude, one-room log cabins, crafted flimsily from sticks cemented with mud."
Chernow's approach isn't as populist as, say, Walter Isaacson's in his biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. And where "Hamilton" reads almost like a novel, with its ready-made climax of Hamilton's fatal duel with Aaron Burr, "Washington" drags a bit near the end as his presidency becomes consumed with managing his squabbling Cabinet.
But if you're a one-stop shopper who wants a single volume that shines a bright, clear light on the father of our country, here it is.
Casey Common is a Star Tribune editor.