BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, October 2017
Move over, Hamilton! Might there be room for a Broadway musical about Ulysses S. Grant? There’s certainly a vast treasure-trove of material in Grant, a stupendous new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow, whose book Alexander Hamilton inspired the hit musical.
Grant is a larger-than-life figure, and Chernow has no difficulty crafting a fascinating and immensely readable (and immense) book. The author is aided by the existence of 32 volumes (comprised of 50,000 documents) of Grant’s papers, as well as Grant’s own memoirs, which he wrote while dying of throat cancer, spurred by a determination to provide for his wife, Julia.
Grant’s life was marked by sometimes bitter failures and hard-won accomplishments. By sheer grit, he managed to succeed in his courageous final endeavor, penning what Chernow calls “the foremost military memoir in the English language.”
Chernow’s biography is replete with fascinating details and insightful political analysis, a combination that brings Grant and his time to life. Grant played a key role in post-Civil War politics, battling Andrew Johnson in order to uphold the terms of surrender he’d negotiated with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Later, Grant came to believe Lee harbored a fantasy that his “defeated cause would rise anew.” (Lee, Chernow tells us, testified in Congress against suffrage for former slaves. As for Johnson, Chernow says, “No American president has ever held such openly racist views.”) Grant sought instead to preserve the Union and safeguard the rights of those freed from slavery. He supported federal funds for African-American education and counted Frederick Douglass as an ally in the effort to stop the atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan.
While Chernow’s biography may be hefty, it is also uncommonly compelling and timely. Perhaps a Broadway adaptation wouldn’t be such a bad idea. . . . In the meantime, put Grant on your must-read list.