Ron Chernow’s “Grant” was published in 2017 to almost immediate acclaim and was named a Top 10 Book of the Year by The New York Times. Chernow is bestselling the author of “Alexander Hamilton,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Washington: A Life” and award-winning biographies of John D. Rockefeller and the J.P. Morgan and Warburg dynasties.
With a narrative spanning 959 pages (not counting the extensive bibliography or 4,500 end notes), this biography of Ulysses S. Grant is by far the longest of the eight books on the 18th president I’ve read – and it might well be the most engrossing.
Magisterial and exceptionally thorough, this is the most recent biography seeking to re-evaluate and rehabilitate Grant’s reputation following William McFeely’s comparatively critical Putlizer Prize-winning assessment of the general-turned-politician. And although Ronald White’s “American Ulysses” beat this biography to market by a year, Chernow’s “Grant” delivers an additional 300 pages of insight and perspective…and a writing style second-to-none.
Fans of Chernow will not be surprised to find the narrative so captivating it often dazzles like a work of fiction. With a knack for choosing excellent biographical subjects and a famously eloquent pen, Chernow consistently crafts uniquely marvelous chronologies. And in nearly every way this is classic Chernow: wonderfully written, generously insightful and almost endlessly engaging.
“Grant” provides its audience with a nearly ideal balance between the public and private sides of Grant’s life. And it rarely loses sight of Grant’s relationships with his parents, wife or children. In addition, Chernow is careful to infuse the narrative with an appropriate dose of historical context – enough to understand how Grant’s choices affect (and are affected by) the broader world, but not so much that the reader is bogged down in trivia with little direct bearing.
The biography does a nice job capturing Grant’s early years, but the chapters describing his service in the Civil War are even better. Chernow is certainly not the first biographer to successfully capture the convergence of Grant’s life with the nation’s greatest domestic conflict, but he is no less adept than others. Some critics have argued his knowledge of specific battles or military affairs is less sharp than his ability to deliver a smooth sentence; if true, most readers will miss this subtlety.
Among the other highlights are a compelling comparison between Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a vivid (if depressing) account of post-war America and an excellent chapter appraising Grant’s presidential legacy and providing an assessment of Reconstruction itself.
Readers will quickly discover that Chernow is no unreliable fan of Grant; his support is full-throated and enthusiastic. In contrast to the man portrayed in McFeely’s 1981 biography, Chernow’s subject frequently receives the benefit of the doubt and occasionally seems super-human. But his most notorious faults are quite hard to miss: a fondness for alcohol and his perpetual business naivete being the most conspicuous.
In fact, while the ongoing exploration of Grant’s alcoholism is unusually meticulous and surprisingly nuanced, it is so frequently mentioned that it eventually grows distracting. In addition, though just one-fourth of the biography is focused on Grant’s presidency, it can feel interminable. In contrast to the rest of the book these eleven chapters can be a bit of a slog – much like the Grant presidency itself.
Overall, however, Ron Chernow’s “Grant” ranks with the very best of the single-volume biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. It is engrossing, revealing and could hardly be better (unless, ironically, there was a tad less of it). For anyone interested in fully embracing the famously reticent Grant it is a must read.
Overall rating: 4½ stars