For a century and a half Ulysses S. Grant has been a baffling and inspiring presence in the American literary and historical imaginations. Born in 1822 and raised by a pious Methodist mother, as a young man he was quiet, given to depressions, and lacking much ambition. Only his love of horses seemed to animate him and give him a reason to excel in his education at West Point, which his scheming father desired for him more than he did. In his thirties, he was a complete failure, at times a drunkard, destined to die forgotten. He found his vocation and success on America’s killing fields; his meteoric trajectory in the Civil War makes him a remarkable case of a nobody who became almost everything.
He comes down to us like a figure out of the tangled mythology of Horatio Alger: Grant in his muddy boots, silently contemplating how to kill and capture more Confederates, smoking and chewing eighteen to twenty cigars per day, and writing dozens of clear dispatches to his commanders. Herman Melville envisioned this Grant in his poem “The Armies of the Wilderness”:
A quiet Man, and plain in garb—
Briefly he looks his fill,
Then drops his gray eye on the ground,
Like a loaded mortar he is still:
Meekness and grimness meet in him—
The silent General.
In the end he ruthlessly crushed the experiment of the Confederacy and became a national hero. He has variously been considered a military icon who won a total victory; a presidential model for overcoming his own considerable flaws and a tragic weakness for scoundrels to achieve fame and glory; a literary phenomenon who crafted the most famous deathbed writing in American letters; and a celebrity who was a paragon of humility and modesty. For decades biographers, from the midcentury historian Lloyd Lewis to contemporary scholars like Ronald C. White, have invoked Grant to explore how passivity and dynamism can exist in the same personality. Ron Chernow, the author of prize-winning biographies of George Washington, John D. Rockefeller, and Alexander Hamilton, has written an expansive new life of Grant. It is a work of striking anecdotes, skillful pacing, and poignant judgments. Chernow’s primary subject—and that of numerous previous Grant biographies—is the nature of Grant’s character. We see him survive an odyssey during which many enemies tried to destroy him, including formidable demons within himself.
Grant never mentioned his drinking problem in his Memoirs, but Chernow makes it a leitmotif of his book. After a distinguished if bracing experience in the Mexican War, a conflict he thought “unjust,” Grant served in a series of frontier postings, first in the Midwest, and then in lonely, sometimes meaningless duty on the West Coast. He usually took to drinking when he had idle time, lived…
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