On Sunday, October 24, the Washington Post published my review of Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life. You may read that review here.
I'd like to add three things to my otherwise self-evident commentary. First, I should have clarified something in the review. I quote historian Joyce Appleby's reference to "the Republicans," without specifying that this refers to the Jeffersonian Republicans—also known as the Democratic-Republicans—rather than the modern GOP. I think this may have confused some readers.
Second, I liked this book. (I'm even getting my father a copy as a gift.) I think that's pretty obvious, but unfortunately that's not what everyone will take away from the review. In many significant ways, Chernow produced an exemplary biography. But my job as a reviewer is not simply to convey my sense of the book's quality, of the degree of pleasure in reading it (though that's essential). I also must say something interesting about it. In doing that, I pointed to the limits on the book's excellence, an act that tends to draw the eye away from the excellence itself. I don't know of any way of countering that effect, except to say, as I did in this review, that a reader might agree with my criticisms, yet still thoroughly enjoy the book.
Third, the main thrust of my criticism is that a biographer must be a historian as well as a life-writer. To understand a person fully—to be able to judge the accuracy of conflicting evidence—a biographer needs to be fully immersed in the times, and the historiography (that is, what historians have written in their arguments with each other). This necessarily involves reading a lot of tedious monographs, the scholarly studies that comprise the academic field of history. It's not fun. It's possible to write a decent historical book without a background in the historiography—but it's harder. And it's nearly impossible to write a great book without it.
I've written about this before, so I needn't go on, but there is an unfortunate hostility between "popular" historians and biographers on one side, and academic historians on the other. Writers of narrative and biography often denounce scholarly writing as boring and irrelevant to the public. Academic historians sometimes deride widely read books as shallow and uninformed. These charges carry some truth, but we shouldn't get carried away in either direction. History needs in-depth studies, with their analyses and arguments. It also needs synthetic narratives, which restore the human, individual element, the life, to history. A biographer needs a literary sensibility and a deep understanding of the historical context, which means an understanding of the ways the context has been debated.
Is there such a thing as zeitgeist? Kinda, I guess. But, real or not, a good biographer must pursue it, to try to grasp what it meant to live in a time and place.