In an earlier post I explained about reading a presidential biography every year. This year I selected His Excellency by Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph J. Ellis.
Biographies are hard for me to read, so I try to make sure they aren’t too long and are written for laypeople. This one was a good choice. Last year I read a bio on James Madison, and it was interesting to see him pop up over and over again in this book. Obviously, Washington made several appearances in Madison’s bio as well, and it was fascinating to look at these two men through different lenses.
The author’s were different, and their purposes were different. Author’s of bios, I’m sure, try to remain objective and write factually. Although, they can’t help a little bit of their own perceptions and opinions coming through. It speaks to the efforts of both authors that, although I saw a different picture of each man in each bio, they seemed to correlate well. I didn’t think that there were any glaring discrepancies. Washington’s biographer wrote about Madison through Washington’s eyes, and Madison’s did the same for Washington. This was the most interesting thing for me, comparing and contrasting the two takes on these great men. The portrayals were different, but made sense considering different political goals, opinions, and current events.
I discovered that the few facts I knew about Washington were incorrect. There was no cherry tree, or wooden teeth. And I was appalled to realized that I didn’t know the most basic things about Washington’s life. For example, he never had any children of his own. Also, he was not born into a wealthy family. He married extremely well, and then turned his own profit through the wars and land holdings.
Bios always take me a little bit longer to get through. This one came in at 275 pages and took me about a week to read. Not bad for me. People who really enjoy nonfiction could knock it out quicker I’m sure. Ellis’ writing style was easy and his explanations about political issues and current events were easy to understand and follow, always an important when it comes to history and complicated issues.