The Perils of Writing about Greatness
I’ve wanted to respond to this Yglesias post on Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life for some time now, but not until I finished the (audio)book. He wrote:
Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is a pretty hilarious reading experience. Essentially Chernow understands the Founder Biography genre all too well. The thesis of the book has to be that the subject was a unique genius for whose every sneeze we are indebted. At the same time Chernow gives every indication of in fact being a sophisticated and intelligent man. So time after time you’ll get a clear description of Washington being inept, or grouchy, followed by a sentence about how he was actually being brilliant. The fact that Washington was a giant hypocrite about slavery, who recognized its fundamental wrongness and kept telling French and/or Yankee acquaintances that we was against it but who never lifted a finger out of political opportunism and greed is laid bear, but then excused.
Yet as I say, it’s really all right there on the page. You could have kept 95% of the sentences the same, retitled the book Right Place At The Right Time: The George Washington Story and it’d be brilliant. As written, it’s slightly silly.
So, Matt does have several points—Chernow’s (open) thesis is that Washington was a great man, and that his goal is to explore the nature and methods of that greatness. On the other hand, I think part of the object is also to re-categorize Washington from “Great Man” to “great man”, from a man who was some sort of world-historical event unto himself to a man who, from early on, had an idea of what it mean to achieve greatness, and spent his life striving toward (and generally reaching, at least far more than most) that goal. Whether he succeeds is another matter—because, yes, you do come across a paragraph about Washington’s ambition but then a reminder at the end that his ambition was of the good kind; or Washington’s grouchiness attributed to political acumen.
But while much of Washington’s life does seem to be summed up in the title Right Place At The Right Time, perhaps his key virtue was in recognizing that he was in the right place at the right time, and taking advantage of it—or, in lesser moments, simply not screwing it up. This would seem to stem from Washington’s ambition—which, Chernow asserts, was far greater than we like to imagine. He didn’t stumble into being a Great Man; rather, he wanted to be a great man.
The most interesting portion of the biography—Washington’s childhood and youth—are the keys to understanding this ambition as presented by Chernow. Washington’s initial desire was to rise from his own noveau riche background into the world of gentlemen planters; from the outside, idolizing it, he doesn’t see its flaws and hypocrisies. His ideas of greatness and virtue come from the education he cobbled together: Aristotle, the Stoics, tales of Rome and Greece and England, the satirical stagework of the period. Most of it—especially the Classical components—was second-hand. Reading (or listening) to the biography, this shows. His idea of virtue, and especially of adhering to virtuous conduct as the means to advancing in society, sounds like a basic one or two page summary of the Nichomachean Ethics. His ideas of greatness, of being a gentleman-planter, of virtue, and of society in general, are, in his youth, hopelessly idealized. While Chernow never says this outright, it is clear to see (or hear) in the presentation.
Moreover, this idealized Aristotelian-Stoic virtue presented as Washington’s own lends some credulity to his repeated invocation of obligations toward Martha and the Custis estate/heirs as his reasons for not freeing even those slaves held in his own name. One needn’t give him forgiveness for having a poorly-managed estate and therefore seeing the freeing of his slaves as standing in the way of his ability to provide for the Custis family (and the various Washington relatives who came calling), but I think we can offer him a modicum more understanding: Washington was a hypocrite, but he seems to have been aware of this, and, I would say, more tortured by it than Jefferson; nor did he pretend, like the man who would eventually inherit a portion of the Custis estate, that he might be doing his slaves any moral good by holding them as property.
For a time, as previously mentioned, Washington wanted only to be a gentleman planter; thwarted in his efforts to join the Royal Navy, and discovering that he is merely a mediocre farmer, he eventually shifts tactics and attempts to break into the highest rung through a combination of local politics, militia work and, most importantly, land-holding/speculation. He had his personal grievances with the British, but protest, and, ultimately, rebellion offered him a way into a section of society, and a tier of greatness, far above that of gentleman-planter. He was, as Yglesias says, in the right place at the right time; but he also saw this and maneuvered his way into taking discrete advantage of it.
That Chernow presents the reader (or listener) with the evidence and, at times, images of Washington’s ambition is the biography’s chief virtue; that he fails to take the necessary next step and fully explore this ambition is its overarching failure. The underbelly of Washington’s (even generally virtuous) ambition would certainly have been far more interesting than the two-dimensional fact that Washington had a temper which he generally kept in check but sometimes vented. If Chernow’s goal was simply to make George Washington appear less “wooden” (his word), then he succeeds; but if he meant to bring him fully to life, he doesn’t quite get there—he still approaches Washington too much with timidity before a Great Man rather than a critical respect (and respectful critique) due a great one. It’s not a “silly” book. It’s just a well-written biography targeted at a broad audience that is happily unaware it never manages to live up to its potential and its ends.