Paul Johnson

Man of Stature

Washington: A Life

By

Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 904pp £35 order from our bookshop

A new life of Washington, 900 pages long? One is tempted to adapt the wartime query about journeys: is your biography really necessary? Washington is perhaps the best-documented person of the entire nineteenth century. From the age of fourteen he hoarded virtually every piece of paper about himself, kept diaries, preserved letters and put everything down in writing. His estate records are remarkable. And in due course he was the beneficiary of the admirable rules of American public life that put every transaction on the record. At the same time he was a man who did not easily unburden or betray his feelings. So he was difficult to know truly both then and now. Hence anyone who digs deeply into the mountain of documentation can produce his own theory of Washington’s character. Ron Chernow, who has already written the lives of Alexander Hamilton and John D Rockefeller, believes that Washington was a much more passionate and temperamental man than is commonly supposed. Fiery moods and carryings-on that raised the blood pressure are the linking theme of this book, and give originality to what is otherwise a competent and well-constructed but conventional portrait. It tells you almost as much as any other life, and has the important merit of being in only one volume.

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