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A Portrait On Paper: Chernow's 'Washington, A Life'

While painting one of his famous portraits, Gilbert Stuart discovered that George Washington was a different man from the cool, calm and composed figure of his public persona.  Based on Washington's facial features alone -- his deep-set eyes and the broad upper nose -- Stuart believed that Washington was "by nature a man of fierce and irritable disposition."

Never one to let his guard down, Washington resisted Stuart's attempts to get him to open up -- he believed a man should be courteous to all but intimate with few. Perhaps that explains why, in spite of numerous portraits, each likeness of Washington has made him seem more unknowable rather than revealing intimate components of his persona.

Capturing an image of George Washington on a canvas may be as difficult as describing him as a man in full on the page. While there have been numerous books written about him, few of them have given as complete a picture of our first president as Ron Chernow's compelling new biography, Washington: A Life. What helped Chernow write a book that captures Washington's essence is the close reading he did of 60 volumes of letters and diaries published as part of the George Washington Papers project, as well as numerous other works of scholarship.

Now, before you think this is a book to shy away from -- a mere regurgitation of historical facts and transcripts of moldy 18th century correspondence -- Washington: A Life is far from that. It is a biography of Washington for the 21st century, one that examines his conflicts and foibles as well as his triumphs. It is a psychological as well as a historical portrait. Chernow makes sure the reader sees the tempestuous side of Washington that many knew lay under his calm demeanor but was revealed to only a few.

Through Chernow's narrative, the reader watches Washington transform himself from an insecure young colonel in the French and Indian War to the president of a young nation. In the progression, a large cast of characters comes in and out of the picture, providing a perspective on Washington's personal relationships and the strengths and weaknesses of his personality. Readers also get a sense of Washington's ambivalence about slavery. Chernow explains how Washington struggled with the idea of slavery, but fell back on the self-serving fantasy that it would fall away.

Washington: A Life keeps its distance from Washington mythology, and its narrative informs as much as it entertains. Starting with the book's epigraph -- "Simple truth is his greatest eulogy," a quote from Abigail Adams -- Chernow lets the reader know he wants to give an accurate portrayal of an enigmatic historical figure. In this book's pages, he does it in a way that not even the most gifted portrait artist of Washington ever could.

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W. Ralph Eubanks