Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, military victor of the Civil War and a middling American president, contains much of value but is ultimately disappointing in capturing Grant as a person and public figure.
His 959-page Grant is over-written and unfocused. It is repetitive, making the same point — often in very similar words — over and over again, and rarely uses one quotation on an aspect of Grant’s life without following it with several more, frequently saying essentially the same thing.
One very positive aspect of Grant is its clear-eyed look at its subject’s alcoholism. Chernow writes in his introduction that a key aim for him in writing the book was to deal with the question of drinking, not as a moral failing (as earlier biographers had) but with the modern understanding of alcoholism as a disease. He writes:
The drinking issue, both real and imaginary, so permeated Grant’s career that a thoroughgoing account is needed to settle the matter. This biography will contend that Grant was an alcoholic with an astonishingly consistent pattern of drinking, recognized by friend and foe alike: a solitary binge drinker who would not touch a drop of alcohol, then succumb at three- and four-month intervals, usually on the road. As a rule, he underwent a radical personality change and could not stop himself once he started to imbibe. Alcohol was not a recreation selfishly indulged, but a forbidden impulse against which he struggled for most of his life….As with so many problems in his life, Grant managed to attain mastery over alcohol in the long haul, a feat as impressive as any of his wartime victories.
“Wise protector of my race”
If only for Chernow’s “thoroughgoing account” of Grant’s drinking, this biography has important value.
In another of his aims, though, Chernow falters. He writes:
What has been critically absent from Grant biographies is a systematic account of his relations with the four million slaves, whom he helped to liberate, feed, house, employ, and arm during the war, then shielded from harm when they became American citizens. Frederick Douglass paired Grant with Lincoln as the two people who had done more to secure African American advances: “May we not justly say…that the liberty which Mr. Lincoln declared with his pen General Grant made effectual with his sword — by his skill in leading the Union armies to final victory?” For the admiring Douglass, Grant was “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.”
Chernow writes that Grant “was instrumental in helping the Union vanquish the Confederacy, and in realizing the wartime ideals enshrined in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments…His pursuit of justice for southern blacks was at times imperfect, but his noble desire to protect them never wavered.”
An adroit naif?
I don’t dispute this assertion. The problem, for me, is in how Chernow carries out his aim to show and prove Grant’s importance to African-Americans.
Some 300 pages, a third of the book, are devoted to Grant’s work as an important government figure under President Andrew Johnson and to his eight years as president, and they end up being a hodge-podge of issues, particularly his failings and, to a lesser extent, successes as a politician; the many scandals of his administration, often involving those close to him; and his efforts on behalf of Reconstruction, especially those to protect blacks from the violent backlash of Southerner whites.
Generally, he deals with these and other topics in a chronological approach which means his examination of any subject is done in the midst of a mishmash of subjects.
This, in part, is where the repetition comes. With each scandal, for instance, Grant refuses to believe that someone he has trusted has betrayed him. Belatedly, and often after making a mess of things, Grant realizes that he’s been had, and Chernow, yet again, tells the reader that his subject was a naif.
Grant’s naivete was a fatal flaw for him as a politician. Yet, several times, Chernow asserts that he was “adroit” at politics. Certainly, the more Grant operated within the political sphere, the better he got. But, even at the end, he was still being duped in many aspects of his role as the nation’s chief administrator.
A good and decent effort
When Chernow writes about Grant and the Reconstruction, he gets distracted often by a desire to show just how bad things were for African-Americans in the South. At such times, his focus shifts from Grant to providing long accounts about outrages in Louisiana or Mississippi or some other area of the South.
What’s going on here, it seems to me, is that Chernow wants to counter a century and more of historians who, influenced by the South, argued that Reconstruction was an oppression of whites and a wrong-headed failure. He wants to make the argument of more recent historians that, within the circumstances, Reconstruction was successful, and would have been more so, had the North (and the Republican party) not gotten tired of protecting blacks.
First of all, it’s unnecessary for him to do more than summarize the recent scholarship rather than work to prove the case all over again. Second, this emphasis on proving Reconstruction to be a good and decent effort makes it more difficult to get a sense of Grant’s thoughts and actions during that era.
Warping the life story
Ultimately, though, Chernow’s efforts to look at Grant’s actions and policies toward African-Americans during his work under Johnson and during his own presidency — in addition to other storytelling decisions — end up warping the story of Grant’s life.
The result is that Chernow rushes through Grant’s Civil War career in about 400 pages and then spends about 300 pages on the 15 years in Washington politics.
This would be somewhat akin in a Lincoln biography to spending 300 pages on Lincoln’s work as an Illinois politician and 400 to his presidency.
Lincoln’s impact on the nation was his presidency. Grant’s was his generalship during the Civil War. Yes, Grant was more influential as a Johnson aide and as president on the direction of the U.S. than Lincoln was as a pol in Illinois.
But, really, the impression of Grant that I come away with from Chernow’s look at his presidency is of someone who, often, was at the mercy of events and other political figures rather than someone who was at the helm, as he was, at least, officially.
Enervating and confusing
It would be interesting to see a book by Chernow that was solely about Grant and African-Americans. In writing a work such as that, Chernow would be in a better position to put Grant’s actions into context and to evaluate them — without such distractions as the scandals and foreign affairs.
Or maybe a book about Grant’s presidency in which the various issues would be better framed and examined.
Here, though, in Grant, Chernow has given the reader an enervating and confusing mess of incidents, quotations, conversations and repetitions that becloud Grant rather than bring him to light.
Patrick T. Reardon