ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In spite of all of the books written about George Washington, his status as legend and icon often overshadows the actual facts of his life. Ron Chernow's new book, "Washington: A Life," is the latest attempt to examine the first president as man rather than myth.
Reviewer Ralph Eubanks reports that Chernow's book is a bold and nuanced new biography, one that's worth the time it will take you to read the 900-plus pages.
RALPH EUBANKS: 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. Stuart believed that he 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.
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 biography 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 colonel in the French and Indian War to the president of a young nation.
In the progression, a large cast of characters come 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 George Washington ever could.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: The book is "Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow. Our reviewer is Ralph Eubanks, author of "The House at the End of the Road." He's director of publishing at the Library of Congress.
And you can read an excerpt about that first portrait session with Gilbert Stuart and George Washington at our website, npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.