“Grant” is Jean Edward Smith’s 2001 biography of the eighteenth U.S. president. It was the 2002 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography. Smith taught at the University of Toronto for 35 years before joining the faculty of Marshall University where he is Professor of Political Science. The most recent of his dozen books are “FDR” and “Eisenhower in War and Peace.”
Smith’s biography is the most widely read of all the Ulysses S. Grant biographies and with good reason. Among the eighty-four presidential biographies I’ve read so far, Smith’s narrative has perhaps the best combinations of effortless fluidity, vivid detail, historical context and insight that I’ve encountered.
Weighing in at over 600 pages (not counting notes or bibliography) this biography feels surprisingly light while remaining appropriately erudite and serious. The half-dozen or so pages in Smith’s preface are among the most potent and thoughtful introductory pages I’ve seen written on behalf of any president.
For the first three-fourths of the book I had a hard time convincing myself to put this biography down…even for a moment. Not until Smith begins his careful five-chapter analysis of Grant’s two-term presidency does the book’s pace slow measurably. At that point the weight of Grant’s complex and sometimes controversial presidency alters the flow but not the intelligence of the text.
Smith’s description of the Mexican War is easily one of the best and most wonderfully descriptive I’ve ever read. Even Zachary Taylor’s biographers were unable to provide the same level of clarity and perspective. And, more importantly, this is the chapter where Smith begins to connect Taylor’s unique, reserved leadership style to that of the future military genius and president Grant is to become.
Despite being my fourth biography of Grant, I found details embedded in the narrative I had not seen elsewhere. But rather than seeming tedious or unnecessary (as details so often feel) they serve to enhance the story and do not weigh it down. And rather than simply providing a chronological template to Grant’s life filled with interesting nuances and minutiae, Smith regularly connects the dots for the reader by making observations other biographers occasionally ignore or miss.
Excellent in nearly every way, this biography is not quite perfect. In addition to slowing measurably during Grant’s presidency, this book suffers from at least one other flaw: after treating its audience to six-hundred pages of war, peace, poverty, fantastic military genius and perplexing presidential naiveté, the last eight years of Grant’s life are dispatched in about twenty pages.
His around-the-world trip is well chronicled and the facts surrounding his authorship of his Memoirs seem complete. Yet the book terminates one paragraph following his death. The reader is left to wonder how the world reacted to his passing or how his legacy evolved in the decades ahead. It feels a bit as though the author bumped against a publishing deadline and was forced to abruptly finish the book.
Despite my desire for a longer, more satisfying conclusion, however, this biography is excellent. It combines certain narrative elements of McCullough’s “John Adams” with the flavor and perspective provided by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” Simply stated, Jean Edward Smith’s “Grant” is very nearly my ideal biography; it is colorful and descriptive, consistently articulate and incredibly informative. I almost cannot imagine a better biography of Ulysses S. Grant.
Overall rating: 4½ stars