One of the best-selling books on American history in 2017 is Ronald Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Entitled Grant, Chernow’s biography is receiving rave reviews online and is currently at the top of the Amazon Book Charts.
Critics enjoy Chernow’s lengthy exploration of the 18th US president’s childhood, especially his relationship with his father Jesse. According to Chernow’s biography, Grant had the exact opposite disposition to his father in terms of disposition. While Jesse was a boisterous self-promoter, Ulysses was a quiet, humble, and even a bit mysterious. Readers say they learned a great deal from Chernow’s analysis of Jesse’s psychological effect on the young Ulysses.
The second major influence in Ulysses S. Grant’s life, Chernow says, was his wife Julia Dett. We learn how Ulysses met Julia while stationed in St. Louis and how his wife helped Grant though some of his most difficult periods.
Interestingly, Chernow treats Grant’s infamous alcoholism using modern diagnostic standards. In Chernow’s opinion, Grant was a “problem drinker” who literally couldn’t stop drinking spirits until he was drunk. While a few other historians have explored this theory in the past, Chernow is the first to explicitly use it as his main thesis for Grant’s addiction to “demon rum.”
During the Civil War years, Chernow analyzes the fact and fiction surrounding all the rumors that were spread of Grant’s drinking habits. According to Chernow, more often than not the sensationalist press concocted these stories only to sell newspapers.
Chernow admits Grant typically only drank in excess when he was alone. Before battle, however, Grant never took a drop of liquor.
Chernow’s biography is most praised, however, for its treatment of Grant in office. Chernow portrays President Grant in a favorable light as a follower of Lincoln’s vision for Southern Reconstruction.
Overall, Chernow’s Grant follows a trend in recent historical scholarship that has a more forgiving view of Grant as both a general and a president. Without a doubt, Chernow’s popular text will change how historians see this iconic figure of Civil War and Reconstruction America.
Ronald Chernow graduated from Yale University and Pembroke College, Cambridge with degrees in English literature. In addition to Ulysses S. Grant, Chernow has written biographies on George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John D. Rockefeller.