So, I finished Chernow’s Grant…all 958 pages of it. It was worth it. Chernow is great and his reputation is well-earned. Great biographies are still stories and great biographers have to tell stories. I understand that academic biographies might be different, but for readable, popular biographers are storytellers. And this is a great story, told really well.
History buffs are probably pretty familiar with the Civil War parts of the history. And, to a somewhat lesser degree, the pre Civil War story of Grant’s struggles, selling firewood on the street, etc.
What was newer to me was the Presidential history–including Reconstruction–and what was completely new to me was the post-Presidential stuff, including the world tour and how he was swindled in a high-profile Ponzi scheme that caused the collapse of two banks.
Another way of saying that history has to be good storytelling is that it has to read like fiction. Which brings us to the old saw…truth is stranger than fiction. That could certainly be true. What I think is actually truer is that truth is more complicated than fiction. A novelist has the ability to simplify the world she creates. A biographer deals with a real and complicated world.
This is an issue that comes up often when dealing with reporters. The true story behind many investigative pieces is often tortuously complicated and that level of complication is often not reflected in the end story for a variety of reasons.
Let me suggest a couple of examples from this book.
Was Grant an alcoholic?
The answer is almost certainly yes. Bad stuff happened when U.S. Grant drank. There are no two ways about it.
But, that’s not really the whole story. Because the fact is that he almost never drank. Chernow has looked at this closely. Grant rarely if ever drank and there are just a lot of contemporaneous accounts that support this idea. Even on his world tour, freed from any responsibility, he was reported numerous specific times to turn his wine glass over at banquets.
But when he did, it seemed to always end up badly. In another day, we would have said that he couldn’t “hold his liquor.”
So where did the idea come that he was a raging alcoholic? Two places. First, he had been discharged from the service for drinking…a story that was repeated time and again, but in normal military gossip channels and then in attacks from political opponents, of which there were many. Second, some of the stories were simply made up. Chernow does a good job of rooting out the “newer” allegations and demonstrating either that they were likely fabricated or at worst exaggerated.
A second example is the Grant presidency. After reading the book, I came to the conclusion that my history education had served me well in learning about the corruption of the Grant administration–and his hapless role in it–but much more poorly when it came to Reconstruction.
Having grown up in the North, I am not sure how I ended up being taught that Reconstruction was a bad thing, but it seemed to have happened. I understand that military rule is oppressive, but in this case the story is also more complicated. The richer story is that the South was overturning the results of the Civil War right under everyone’s eyes and even many Republicans–a party founded on abolition–were willing to look the other way and let mob rule terrorize the South.
The key point is that Grant stood with the freed people long after people in his own party had abandoned them. I knew that it took 100 years before those freed people really began to have civil rights, but I did not realize the level of mob rule that existed during Reconstruction or the North’s complicity in it.
Well, when you have 958 pages, you can deal with some complexity. To come full circle, though, is to remember that doing so in a way that is still a compelling story is the skill of a great biographer like Chernow.