Grant by Ron Chernow (Historical Biography, 2017).
Chernow, an award-winning biographer, tackles another key figure in American history in this, his latest book. He produces a richly detailed and forthright account of the man known to us as US Grant. With obvious sympathy and appreciation of his subject’s often underrated abilities, Chernow nonetheless doesn’t shy away from the man’s weaknesses and failures.
Grant’s life was a tale of frequent frustrations, interspersed with magnificent triumphs and equally startling disasters–any one of which might well have crushed a lesser man.
His recurrent problems with alcohol are not glossed over, but they are well-explained, as is his eventual triumph over strong drink. This makes for a compelling story, in itself.
The general and president’s other key and persistent problem stemmed from his instinctive loyalty and trust in those he thought were his friends. Extraordinarily honest, he seemed unable to grasp that those around him might be less reliable–and so he was duped, abused and shocked, again and again.
The author ably fleshes out Grant’s difficult boyhood. I learned a good deal more about his early years–including his strained and inhibited family life, with an emotionally withholding mother and an overbearing, cynical and wildly self-promoting father. The experiences Chernow details go a long way to explaining contradictory aspects of the man’s psychology.
Loving and marrying Southern-raised Julia Dent brought a second older male figure into Grant’s life. His life and mutually devoted relationship with Julia were made far more complicated in dealing with her disapproving, slave-owning father.
His excellent service as a junior officer in the Mexican War (a war he disapproved of, yet which he fought in with distinction mixed with deep-seeded humanity) should’ve signaled the beginning of a fine career. But the lonely post-war frontier postings far from the love of his life brought to a head one of the recurrent problems he struggled with–the rare but devastating bouts of excessive drinking.
Chased from the army as a result, he failed in several attempts to make a go of civilian life–often as a direct result of that too-trusting nature. Then the Civil War dragged him back into military service, where his greatness as a soldier rapidly asserted itself.
Chernow’s inside look at the terrible war from Grant’s perspective repeatedly and convincingly puts to shame the untrue images of Grant as either of fortunate oaf or an uncaring butcher using sheer numbers to overwhelm his battlefield opponents.
Likewise, the author’s comprehensive look at the post-war Reconstruction era and Grant’s vital involvement in it, first as General of the Army and then as President, sternly rebuts a number of myths about that time.
While certainly tinged with scandals perpetrated by others, Grant’s overall Presidency is shown to have featured many major successes. Even his missteps (and there were several) arose in part from his trusting nature and his own idealism, made worse by occasional stubbornness. As Chernow demonstrates, the man had good policy instincts and grew from a novice into an often adept politician.
His round-the-world trip upon the end of his 2nd term was a revelation to me, as was his failed attempt at a 3rd term after Hayes’ turn in the White House ran its course. And of course, the tale of his last months provided a heart-rendering climax to it all: Bravely enduring great pain from throat cancer to produce the brilliant wartime memoirs that were his final gift to the world (and assured his widow and family would not be left penniless after yet another set of con-men landed him on the brink of bankruptcy).
Grant was a fascinating, sometimes controversial and occasionally contradictory figure in life–and remains so in death. This hefty book is, so far, the definitive overall portrait of his life and times.