An interview with author Ron Chernow, who talks about his fascinating new biography, "Washington: A Life."

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Ron Chernow has been called a self-made historian, and he owns up to the label. The author of six award-winning works of history and biography, Chernow came to authorship as an English major intending to write novels. But “every time I wrote fiction, I was discouraged, and every time I wrote nonfiction, I was encouraged,” he recalls.

Lucky for his admiring readers. Chernow, winner of the 1990 National Book Award for his first book, “The House of Morgan,” writes immensely readable books, thanks to a novelist’s mastery of two techniques: a. telling a compelling story and b. creating unforgettable characters. Those skills are on full display in his new biography: “Washington: A Life,” (Penguin Press, 904 pp., $40), an enthralling account of the life and times of George Washington that took Chernow six years to write.

Chernow chronicles an amazing transformation, as George Washington grows from an insecure young man with a hair-trigger temper to a leader bearing the weight of America’s birth and early development on his shoulders.

Like other Washington biographers, Chernow has benefited from his subject’s “compulsion to record his everyday life.” Scholars are still sifting through the results: Chernow made extensive use of the Washington Papers, a project at the University of Virginia dedicated to compiling everything ever written by and about George Washington. This collection has expanded from 39 volumes in the 1930s to “sixty volumes of letters and diaries and still counting,” Chernow writes. “Strange as it may seem, George Washington’s life has now been so minutely documented that we know far more about him than did his own friends, family, and contemporaries.”

In a phone interview, Chernow estimated that 900 books have already been written on Washington. But he decided there was more to say about the father of our country after coming upon a letter written by Alexander Hamilton (a previous subject of a Chernow biography) to his father-in-law after Hamilton and Washington had a serious falling out. The simmering conflict implied in the letter suggested a more complicated Washington than the wooden-faced elder statesman of the Gilbert Stuart paintings.

The early sections of Chernow’s book show Washington as the young man he was before the responsibilities of leadership claimed him: an extraordinary horseman and athlete, a flirt with the ladies and a shrewd, if sometimes avaricious, businessman.

As a politician, Washington became a canny strategizer with a gift for standing back until the main chance presented itself. As a member (by marriage) of the Virginia aristocracy, he was something of a snob — until the privations of the Revolutionary War forged an emotional bond between Washington and the common soldiers of the Continental Army. As a leader, he had to learn to curb a violent temper, waiting to deliver payback to his enemies at the most strategic moment.

“The people who worked for him saw him as a fierce, hard-driving perfectionist,” says Chernow, a man under incredible pressure from the moment he took on the leadership of the Continental Army. “This was a man who had to deal with constant shortages of money, blankets, clothing, shoes — day after day of pleading” for help from what Chernow calls Washington’s “fourteen masters” — the leadership of the thirteen states and the Continental Congress.

“It’s hard to imagine any other person at that time or even since being able to carry the weight of that burden amid all these enormous frustrations — to hold that ragged army intact,” Chernow says. Washington’s character lends credence to the belief that historical events are driven by influential individuals — “People who don’t think there’s truth in the great man or woman theory of history should read this book,” Chernow said.

Nowhere was Washington more conflicted than in his feelings toward slavery; Washington was “oppressed” by the issue for his entire life, Chernow says.

Early on, as a plantation owner, “he thought that slavery was a bad bargain, not just for the slave but the master,” Chernow says. Washington would total up his layout for food and money and medical care and wonder why his slaves weren’t working harder. “He couldn’t see that there was no benefit to them for working harder,” Chernow says.

Washington’s attitudes began to change when he witnessed the bravery of black soldiers in the Continental Army (blacks fought on both sides in the conflict). In his will, he directed that the 125 slaves under his direct control be freed after his wife Martha’s death.

Chernow’s story is that of a good but flawed man who became a great man. Readers will discover a Washington who starts out as all-too-human, then “just keeps getting better and better,” said Chernow. “I wanted to show George Washington, not being George Washington, but becoming George Washington.”

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or