Grant by Ron Chernow
I raced through this book rather like um, Sherman through Georgia! At a daunting 900 plus pages, the biggest challenge is picking it up!
Prior to reading Chernow’s tome, I knew zero about Grant the general or Grant the president. This is due to my lack of interest in the Civil War, presidential history, and possibly the fact that I am a native Southerner. Grant is not a revered figure here.
But the lack of respect accorded Grant over the years isn’t limited to Southerners.
Both his military record and his presidential legacy have been trashed by various historians. Chernow is intent on redeeming Grant’s reputation, and he pretty much succeeds. Chernow’s Grant was a gifted military strategist, a better president than history has portrayed, and a modest, decent guy. He was also a spree drinker and somewhat gullible.
Grant acknowledged his drinking problem, but only had limited control over it. When his wife was with him or he was extremely busy, he didn’t drink for months at a time. But inactivity or fatigue, combined with a lack of support from friends or his wife, often prompted day long binges.
Chernow devotes many pages to this failing. Every drinking incident of the war years is elaborately debated. It seems a bit overkill, but maybe Grant is due the correction. The newspapers at the time were absolutely vicious on the subject as were some his contemporaries. (This was the height of the 19th C Temperance Movement when drinking of any kind was considered a grave moral flaw.)
Like his drinking, Grant’s gullibility was something he paid for many times over. He was a shrewd judge of military prowess but a poor judge of character. His presidency was marred by numerous incidents such as the notorious Whisky Ring scandal. As a final humiliation, he invested his savings with a “friend” who lost it all. This forced Grant to grind out his memoirs while gravely ill in order to leave his wife sufficient funds on which to live. (He completed his memoirs the week before he died.)
As T.J. Stiles notes in The Washington Post, “[Chernow]guides us into the character of a famously reticent man, revealing how he could be both a failure and a conqueror, principled yet surprisingly naive.”
Grant is both a portrait of the man and an engrossing history of his time.
Who Wrote It
Ron Chernow is the prizewinning author of six previous books and the recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal. His first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award; Washington: A Life won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography; and Alexander Hamilton –the inspiration for the Broadway musical– won the American History Book Prize. A past president of PEN America, Chernow has been the recipient of eight honorary doctorates.
What Other Reviewers Say
Janet Maslin The New York Times: “Grant is vast and panoramic in ways that history buffs will love. Books of its caliber by writers of Chernow’s stature are rare, and this one qualifies as a major event …is much livelier than this author’s Alexander Hamilton.”