The main talent of George Washington and Jay-Z, the reason we know their names at all, is deeply American: They were masters of linking their tiny lives to giant narratives, of making their private grievances and struggles seem universal. Both imagined themselves, most vividly, in the context of war—as righteous American underdogs caught up in the grand sweep of history.
Jay-Z describes his childhood in Bed-Stuy explicitly as “life during wartime.” Late-twentieth-century America, in his view, was “almost genocidally hostile” toward black culture, waging an endless campaign of institutionalized racism, cutting inner-city social services, and launching a War on Drugs that punished an illness—addiction—as a crime. “We came out of the generation of black people,” he writes, “who finally got the point: No one’s going to help us … Success could only mean self-sufficiency, being a boss, not dependent.” This epiphany gave birth to a figure Jay-Z calls “the hustler”—an antihero who manages, by any means necessary, to convert extreme poverty into wealth. Which brings us to the ethical pickle at the core of the Jay-Z myth. He moves very quickly, in Decoded, from lamenting the tragedy of the crack epidemic to profiting from it as a dealer—and he never quite makes clear the moral steps that justify that transition. When pushed about his contradictory image, he falls back on “I’m complex.” Complexity seems to be his ultimate value, in art and in life: tension, ambiguity—what Keats called “negative capability.” He’s the poet of cognitive dissonance.
The hustler, for Jay-Z, transcends drugs and crime. “For me,” he writes, “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles: the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all.” Looking back from the pinnacle of his adult success, Jay-Z could just as easily be speaking about 1770s New England: “I was part of a generation of kids who saw something special about what it means to be human, something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America.”
The original American hustler, one could argue, was George Washington. In Chernow’s portrait—the first full-length biography to draw on decades of new scholarship—Washington turns out to be much more nuanced than the jingoistic sock puppet tossed around by cable-news patriots. He was not just a carved granite head: He was a flirter, a gambler, an enthusiastic dancer, the best horseman in America, and a conflicted slave owner. (This was Washington’s cognitive dissonance: He was a freedom-fighting radical who amassed great wealth and power on the backs of slaves. Throughout the revolution—at the Continental Congress, at Valley Forge—he was attended by his faithful black manservant, William Lee.) He was also a master of sneaky opportunism. During the Revolutionary War, he conjured an illusion of military might out of almost nothing, miraculously persuading the British not to attack his ragtag, undersupplied army. As a striving young man, he engaged in behavior that contradicts our cherished image of his cherry-tree honesty. He circumvented British real-estate laws by filling petitions with fake names. He won voters over by feeding them cake and enlisted a local sheriff to help turn an election in his favor. He was also addicted to colonial bling: He wore ruffles and silk stockings, ate with ivory-handled silverware, and accented his mansion with marble and mahogany. He ordered so many luxury goods from London, in fact, that he put himself into serious debt. One of the revelations of Chernow’s book is how much of Washington’s revolutionary fervor was fueled by wounded pride and petty grievances. It was not just the inalienable rights of man—it was also the suspicion that English merchants were skimming money off of his tobacco profits and building his fancy carriage out of second-rate wood. He was, as Jay-Z might say, complex.