“Ulysses S. Grant” is Josiah Bunting’s 2004 biography of the eighteenth U.S. president. Bunting is an author, retired officer in the US Army and has served in a variety of academic and leadership capacities at West Point, the Naval War College, Princeton and VMI. His novel “The Lionheads” was one of Time Magazine’s “Ten Best Novels of 1973.”
As a member of The American Presidents Series, readers expect a concise, punchy, straightforward biography from Bunting, and he delivers precisely that. In a no-nonsense style stretching little more than one-hundred-fifty pages, Grant’s entire life is reviewed, analyzed and defended.
Beyond simply providing the reader with a fast, extremely comprehensible reading experience, Bunting often injects his own unique observations on Grant’s life. And although he often refers to the opinions of other well-known Grant biographers, he frequently provides his own interesting perspective on matters.
Relative to lengthier, more comprehensive biographies of Grant, Bunting’s book moves at almost a breathless pace. He includes nearly everything of substance but rarely stops to smell the roses. Only the most crucial of details are included and there is very little ancillary scene-setting. As with other biographies in this series, the reading experience reminds me of skipping a lengthier literary classic in favor of the more efficient synopsis provided by the CliffsNotes review.
Unfortunately, this concise format allows no opportunity to explore the many fascinating nuances of Grant’s life or to understand how a man of such seemingly little potential could become Lincoln’s most successful general – and America’s most revered military hero. A potent efficiency may be one of this book’s greatest rewards, but it comes at the expense of depth and color.
And although Bunting’s style of writing is generally clear and articulate, it is not uncommon to find individual sentences that are asked to do far too much. In these moments the narrative becomes wordy and complex. Laying out the sentence diagram for some of these would stump even the best old-school grammar teacher.
Because of the biography’s brevity it also provides the least satisfying “Civil War experience” of any of Grant’s biographies I’ve read. Battles are so quickly described it is hard to understand much beyond the largest-scale details. Fortunately the author usually book-ends military engagements with a concise explanation of what the reader should take away. But it reminds me of reading newspaper headlines in an effort to understand the news.
Finally, Bunting breaks very little (if any) new ground in his review of Grant’s life and legacy. Reading this biography is more an exercise in efficiency than in deepening one’s understanding of Grant’s. But for an impatient reader, this may be an invaluable service. And, typical for this series, Bunting provides a useful chronology of Grant’s life toward the back of the book along with the author’s views of many other biographies of Grant.
Overall, “Ulysses S. Grant” performs its objective admirably: it provides a time-starved audience with a potent, hard-hitting and ultimately sympathetic review of Grant’s life. It is reasonably comprehensive without being thorough, and is illuminating without being nuanced. In my view, Grant is undoubtedly worthy of a more colorful and penetrating biography. But for many, Josiah Bunting’s biography provides the perfect balance of insight and efficiency.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars