Books of The Times: In Ron Chernow’s ‘Grant,’ an American Giant’s Makeover Continues

Also eerie is how Grant the politician came to value loyalty over ideology, and how stories of Ku Klux Klan atrocities were dismissed by Southerners as “fairy tales” — i.e., fake news. Then there’s the fact that when Grant moved into the White House, he had a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner, removed from the north lawn and sent to the Capitol.

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Ron ChernowCredit Beowulf Sheehan

Not everything in “Grant” carries this much resonance and weight. Chernow likes extreme research; if a Civil War luminary had hemorrhoids, you can read about them here. This is also at least his second book to take an interest in false teeth. For “Washington,” he actually spent some time at Mount Vernon gazing at his subject’s grizzly choppers. Here he tells a story about Grant’s leaving his teeth in a hotel and having an employee throw them away. It’s not clear what happened after that.

But “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. Chernow grapples with an enormous amount of material, while mostly sustaining a tight focus. He manages to put on Grant goggles and deal primarily with this one soldier’s role in the military, this one leader’s role in the Civil War. And then the role of one president — branded a political amateur — in leading a country still coming apart at the seams.

Raised in Ohio and educated at West Point, Grant had the humility to do any kind of labor he could find, and the family to make him want to keep working. His father, Jesse, never stopped exploiting Ulysses, whether making him work in a tannery as a boy (a stomach-turning job for him) or using the Grant presidency as a marketing gimmick for his business. His mother, upon greeting her son, the victorious general, said flatly: “Well, Ulysses, you’ve become a great man, haven’t you?” And then she went back to doing housework.

Grant’s drinking is handled so repetitively that the subject begins to pall. In his early days, he drank heavily enough to be forced out of his job as an Army quartermaster after only five months. Chernow contends that it was once a binge problem — a way for Grant to unwind when he wasn’t leading an army into battle — but that he later learned to control it. The evidence consists of countless stories in which Grant asked that his wine glass be turned upside down at dinner. And both Grant’s wife, Julia (who favored dresses with bows in the back), and a designated watcher tried to monitor his behavior.

The book includes an awful lot of instances when Grant slipped up in his abstinence, but Chernow is deeply in his subject’s camp, always ready to play apologist about the drinking and other troubling behaviors. Grant once issued an order expelling Jews from a Southern military district but Chernow thinks this may have had something to do with Oedipal rage against his father, who once went to Mississippi with three Jewish cotton traders who … does it matter? The book points out that Grant also went to a synagogue dedication and sat through a lot of talk in Hebrew.

That story is well known. But Chernow has found many others from new and obscure sources. He also offers something he has found wanting in previous biographies of Grant: “a systematic account of his relations with the four million slaves, whom he helped to liberate, feed, house, employ, and arm during the war, then shielded from harm when they became American citizens.”

Of course, Grant’s efforts to protect former slaves didn’t keep them from suffering after the war, in the backlash against Reconstruction. And Grant had trouble protecting himself as well, facing severe financial troubles after his presidency. Chernow’s indispensable book, which attempts to see Grant’s life as a triumph, is also steeped in tragedy.

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