The Enigma of U.S. Grant

Grant: A Biography

by William S. McFeely
Norton, 519 pp., $19.95

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant; drawing by David Levine

Biography is one thing, history another. Most of the earlier biographers of U.S. Grant, however, have responded to the formidable challenge the subject presents by writing chunks of history, military and political. Some of that history has been quite good. Far the best and largest part has been military history, and surely that is a story worth telling. But President Grant was the central figure in American political history for more than twice as long as General Grant was a dominant figure in Civil War history. And the two careers together account for less than a dozen of his sixty-three years. What then about the enigmatic and insignificant-looking man behind it all, the little man with the hurt look in his eyes?

For a time it seemed as if Lloyd Lewis, a talented writer, would bring it off with a multi-volume biography, but he died after completing one small volume covering Grant’s early years.1 Bruce Catton then took over that work, using Lewis’s notes to supplement his own, but he added only two readable volumes on the war years.2 In the meantime the professionally edited volumes of Grant’s papers began to appear, eight of them so far.3 These enhanced the opportunities of the biographers, but most of the essential sources had been available a long time. And yet after a century we were still waiting for the real biography.

The great difficulty that has baffled Grant biographers all along has been how to reconcile the appalling disparities in the man’s public record, the apparent contradictions in his behavior, the stark contrasts over the years in his status and self-esteem. Abject failure and world fame; superb mastery of the world’s most powerful army and hopeless incompetence in the most powerful political office; liberator of the slaves and betrayer of the freedmen; common man’s hero and rich man’s friend; a loner who was terrified of being alone; an offspring of the obscure who abhorred obscurity and was frightened by the obscure (“Meekness and grimness meet in him,” wrote Herman Melville); a figure of legendary shyness with an insatiable gluttony for public acclaim; a man who blanched at the sight of blood (even a medium-rare steak) and loosed the most copious bloodbaths in our history. And always back and forth from poverty to riches, from failure to triumph, from humiliation to glorification.

Yet this, so Professor William S. McFeely tells us, was all one man—Ulysses S. Grant by name (although he was not named that)—paradoxes, anomalies, incongruities, disparities, and irreconcilabilities to the contrary notwithstanding. This biographer does not demand an act of faith on the part of his reader. He does not rely on the persuasiveness and plausibility of narrative. He does not try to dazzle us with fancy models, or theories, or “conceptualizations.” And he does not pull any startling new evidence out of his hat. In fact…

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