American history, biographies, book reviews, presidential biographies, Ron Chernow, Ulysses Grant, US Presidents
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
I too wondered when you would get around to this book. It is such a good one in my opinion also. I knew you would like it. I thought you might rate even closer to 5, but it is clear that you have always put a lot of thought into those ratings.
I remember particularly loving his telling of the Civil War portion of Grant’s life as well. It was as good as any I can think of. I loved this book! Only his own Washington was better.
As always, you write the best presidential biography reviews out there. I’ve looked forward to you writing this one for a long time.
I’ve been waiting to get to this for some time as well! I would have slotted it in earlier but since I read Chernow’s “Hamilton” last year I thought I should wait to read his biography of Grant…so I read Ronald White’s. Then I thought it would be odd to read two follow-up bios of Grant and none on so many others. But I can only put off a Chernow biography for so long before I give in.
Some day I will have to go back and re-read “Washington: A Life” even though it will mean putting off something else – I need to remind myself just how good that was and how, for better or worse, it really set the 5-star bar for me 🙂
First of all, I LOVE your blog & often use it as a reference point for my own reading habits. I love to compare what you’ve read vs. what I’ve read, & read your reviews for a new perspective.
Chernow’s Grant is one of my must-reads this year, especially after reading Grant’s Memoirs last year: what a brilliant piece of literature! And Grant’s writing style is so modern, one could barely decipher it from any book written today, except for the subject matter & content.
My favorite Presidents are FDR & Lincoln, & I always look forward to a new biography on either man. I also love reading your reviews on the biographies you’ve written in this blog on them.
Thanks again for the wonderful blog. Keep up the great work!!!
I *still* haven’t read his memoirs (it’s inexplicable, but I’m still focused on third-party perspectives) but I intend to read those soon. I recently realized that on a trip to Lake George, NY a few years I passed within a few minutes of where he finished writing those…and I was distraught to have missed the opportunity to stop by and see it.
In addition to FDR and Lincoln (who are hard to find dull) I think Teddy Roosevelt is infectiously interesting. If you’ve not read a TR bio…you must!
J. Jensen said:
When you do read his memoirs, I would recommend considering one of the annotated editions. Granted, the non-annotated version is also excellent, reading just pure Grant, but I do like both annotated editions for extra levels of insight and context they add from a modern perspective. Elizabeth Samet’s is the one I’d recommend, simply because hers is broader and more culturally focused while the other (can’t remember how to spell his name…Marszalek or something) is more focused on battlefield minutiae and details. Both are excellent, but Samet’s is more enjoyable.
Hi-maybe you missed it in my initial comment, but I have read Grant’s Memoirs. It’s a brilliant piece of work, & his writing style is so modern: just like his persona, it’s spare, direct & honest. He’s also so ahead of his time the way he writes about racism, both in American society & in the military. It’s visionary in a no holds barred way. The edition I read was the Penguin Classics one, with the foreword by the great historian James McPherson. I did see the Annotated Edition of Grant’s Memoirs & would be interested in owning & reading that as well one day. I do love my Penguin Classics Edition, it’s so portable, the print is perfect, & it went with me everywhere, & looks like it’s been through one of the Union’s battles lol. Eventually I will get to Chernow’s Grant; it’s here at home waiting its turn. But thanks for the suggestion!
J. Jensen said:
No worries! I was actually addressing it to Steve specifically, but the ‘Reply’ option only allowed me to provide a response directly under his comment but connected to your original comment (his comment didn’t have a direct ‘Reply’ option). I actually own 3 editions of Grant’s memoirs, but none as portable as your penguin one! The annotated ones are pretty hefty, and I also own a leather bound edition by Easton Press that’s pretty nice. Some day I’d love to have if not a first edition at least an early one from the late 19th century.
Thanks Steve – can’t wait to check this one out. Sitting on my shelf. I think you’re going to love Titan. Wonderful book.
I can’t wait to read Titan (or his book on the Morgan banking dynasty since I have some ties to one of those financial institutions). In the interest of not reading back-to-back Chernow I’m starting Andrew Robert biography of Winston Churchill…but I’m not planning to wait too long to read Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller.
Having read biographies of Andrew Carnegie (by David Nasaw) and J.P. Morgan (Jean Strouse) recently I would love to round things out with a great biography of John D. Rockefeller!
I have the Churchill book looking at me too – if I wasn’t halfway through Battle Cry of Freedom I might dig in!
I hear Chernow’s next subject is Twain…
“Luckily, the book that I am writing at the moment is on Mark Twain, so I am holed up in my apartment with arguably the most entertaining person in American history.”
Like others have said, I’ve been waiting for you to review this as well and was not disappointed. I’m currently reading Shelby Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative. I’d definitely recommend it. It’ll take you a while but it’s worth a read. I’m curious, with other Grant biographies that you’ve read, do you feel like they focused more on military Grant more than President Grant? By comparison, do you feel that Chernow’s gave equal time to both military career and presidency/post presidency?
Patrick weisback said:
I agree Shelby Foote is an excellent writer – was my first real analysis of the Civil War and couldn’t get enough, and now I’ve read almost 60 books on it. Cher now is a bit weak on the campaigns check out Gordon Rhea’s Overland Campaign series for Grant taking over from the Wilderness to Petersburg – they are fantastic easy reading with great analysis of each battles tactics. Jean Edward Smith’ s Grant is also awesome. Chernow can’t be beat – can’t wait for the next one.
Arnell Hill said:
I found the coverage of Reconstruction very revealing and enlightening. Especially with the current events in this country. Grant truly was the first civil rights President.
You’re absolutely right Steve: Grant was the first civil rights President. I think Lincoln would’ve been the first, as he was continuously evolving in his perspective on racism, but his assassination cut that short.
Whenever you get the chance to read Grant’s Memoirs, you’ll be struck by the way he addressed racism in both the military & in the country as a whole. As an African American I was deeply touched & moved by his words: they could’ve been written today in 2020 sadly.
I did read Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex, & another TR bio I can’t quite recall now, but, for me, the Hyde Park clan is infinitely more interesting than the Oyster Bay clan. Years ago I met FDR III at Riverside Park during the dedication of a statue for his grandmother Eleanor Roosevelt, whom my mother was named after. What a kindly, humble, brilliant man.
Typo: Arnell- you’re absolutely right: Grant was the first civil rights President.
Excellent review. This was another great book by Mr. Chernow and I eagerly await his book on Twain. I was not aware of his next project until now. One has to wonder if Twain’s involvement in Grant’s memoirs impacted his decision.
A book on Twain may be right on time. I’ve been reading the new book on TR and Morgan which deals with the Gilded Age and the conflict between government, capital, and labor. After reading one passage quoting TR and Debs, I asked – 1895 or 2020.
I’m reading this now; I’m in the Presidency section. I would agree with your review, especially the part about the drinking allegations being rehashed to the point of distraction!
This was a great book, but, to be honest, I preferred Jean Edward Smith’s bio, and I would definitely recommend that to a newcomer to Grant than Chernow’s tome, if only because it’s not nearly as intimidating. This one was definitely worth the pretty hardback now laying on my shelf, though.
I thought this book was fantastic. I also read Smith’s bio too, both were excellent, though I’d give the edge to Chernow. But I thought Smith’s depiction of the crucial Grant-Sherman relationship was outstanding, and I was surprised to find Chernow didn’t seem to develop that nearly as much.
And Chernow covered Grant’s post presidency in much greater depth than Smith. Unlike many presidents, Grant’s post presidency was so interesting, a quick summation wouldn’t do him justice.
But I loved both books, and would recommend both.
Like others posting here, I have a backlog of Chernow books I’m waiting to get to, after the presidents. But they’re worth the wait!
I would personally give the book 3 stars. It focuses on Grants drinking every few pages as though the authors needs to tell the reader if there has been any drinking at this stage in his life. I believe the author did this to have this book stand out from the other grant biographies. Another disappointment is the lack of coverage on grant during battles. Chernow leads up to the battle and then covers its aftermath and how it impacted grant right after. I think that Grant by Jean Edward Smith covers the battles better than other biographies and Whites book is solid for the presidential years. I don’t think that Chernow’s book has a place and he should have written a biography on a different subject.
We obviously disagree on this particular book’s merit…but I’d be ok with Chernow having skipped Grant as his most recent biographical subject if it meant he would have used that time to craft a 4+ star biography of Jackson, Van Buren, McKinley, TR or Taft…
That’s cool. I was really looking forward to Grant by Chernow, it just didn’t do it for me, unfortunately. Ron Chernow’s revelations on Grant’s drinking might have been insightful I just don’t like the way he approached it. If it had been my first book on Grant I probably would have overlooked some of its flaws or not noticed them at all. Apparently John F. Marszalek didn’t really agree with Chernow’s approach to Grant’s drinking episodes or his conclusions either. I am probably being too harsh on Chernow though. If his book introduces new readers to Grant that would have made it a worthwhile endeavor and a good source. I really how Chernow brings history to the general public in a compelling and engaging way.
I think Chernow could have done a biography on Madison or Monroe and it would have been amazing. Seems Jon Meacham is doing one which I am really looking forward to since we don’t have definitive one yet. I think Monroe could have been very good, but I think Chernow wanted to focus on a different time period since he already did two on revolutionary figures.
Sorry if my comment came across the wrong way. I love your website by the way! I have used it for several years to get inspiration on things to read and use your reviews as a guideline for how good books are. If I disagree in my comments I post it’s all in good fun. 🙂
As you note, Grant’s battles are covered expertly elsewhere, so I do not believe Mr. Chernow would have been adding anything – just retreading what others have done. As someone who appreciates the political over military, I enjoyed the relative brevity attached to battles. Oftentimes I find myself skimming over them.
Although I do have say, TJ Stiles does a wonderful job in Custer’s Trials.
That’s understandable. I think we do, however, miss out on some of Grant’s actions and how it impacts our view of his character when a solid overview of the battle is not covered. Even some of Grant’s interactions with key figures are covered a bit too quickly during these episodes. Most individuals that are going to read Grant by Ron Chernow won’t seek out individual books on these battles or read numerous bios on Grant to get this information. I just think that some readers might come away without getting a full picture of Grant.
I read this book last fall and found it fascinating, enjoyable, surprisingly relevant. After finishing, I decided to undertake reading a biography of each of the presidents. I’m glad to have found your blog to help guide me through this journey. Because I read Chernow’s biography of George Washington shortly after reading about Grant, I was struck by the many similarities between these two men.
Indeed. I find Washington and Grant to both be fascinating personalities in slightly different ways, and Chernow an extremely skilled writer, so I really loved both of these biographies!
Chevaan Seresinhe said:
Hi, I came across your blog after watching Grant, a mini-series on the History channel in the UK. You should check it out, although I am sure you may have seen it already! I had no idea how fascinating Grant was! This is a great review!
I do have the Grant series sitting on my DVR but I haven’t watched it yet (strange as that sounds). He was a phenomenally interesting man and, ironic as it sounds, was far more fascinating to me before and after his presidency rather than during his two terms in office.