Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow

At nearly one thousand pages in length, Grant by Ron Chernow, is a true commitment for a casual reader. Chernow ably navigates the events of Grant’s life as well as the complex history and politics that surround them. One comes away from the book with a firm understanding of the civil war, mid-late 19th century American politics, and the characters that influenced Grant’s life. However, Grant himself remains an enigma for much of the book.

Chernow is one of the ablest biographers of our time. His masterful, award-winning biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington are different from his treatment of Grant. Of the three, Grant, with his everyman persona and significant personal failings, is the most relatable to the average reader. And this comes across in Chernow’s work, but there is also a distinct difference in writing style. Almost emulating his subject, Chernow uses less of the grandiose language and vocabulary ever-present in his earlier books. That does not mean the writing is any less refined. If anything, it is just more approachable.

Chernow chooses the right level of detail with regards to discussing Grant’s family, friends, and rivals. We learn enough about them to understand how they affected Grant, and Chernow does not shy from interesting anecdotes. But the book, despite its length, never gets bogged down in unnecessarily long side stories about minor characters.

What was missing in most of the book was an understanding of Grant’s personality and what it would be like to sit in a room with him. There are constant references to his laconic manner in public, drinking issues, and also mentions that he was a good story-teller in private. However, unlike with Washington, Chernow does not paint the kind of personality portrait that makes you feel like you know what it would be like to talk to Ulysses S. Grant. Chernow tries to express Grant’s personality through his actions, but it’s not enough. Perhaps this is an over-correction for Chernow, who was criticized by some for playing pseudo-psychologist in Washington.

One does get a better sense of Grant’s personality in the final couple of hundred pages. The story stays compelling right through to the end. Perhaps this is because Chernow knows what to include and what to leave out, or perhaps this is because Grant’s life was just so compelling. Either way, Grant is worth reading through to the end. Not only is it a superb history lesson, it’s also a comprehensive portrait of a human enigma that deserves dissecting.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.