Ron Ch­er­now’s biography of Grant is well-crafted but im­per­fect his­tory.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY T. J. STILES

In the es­say “The Art of Biography,” Vir­ginia Woolf asks, “Is biography an art?” She ad­mits that the ques­tion is “un­gen­er­ous” but adds, “There it is, when­ever a new biography is opened, cast­ing its shadow on the page; and there would seem to be some­thing deadly in that shadow.”

Woolf’s ques­tion hov­ers over all bi­og­ra­phers, even the most ac­com­plished. It comes now for Ron Ch­er­now, the au­thor of “Grant,” a new ac­count of the Civil War gen­eral and two-term pres­i­dent. Re­cip­i­ent of the Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal, Ch­er­now won the Pulitzer Prize for his last book, “Wash­ing­ton,” and the Na­tional Book Award for his first, “The House of Mor­gan.” Lin-Manuel Mi­randa adapted his best-sell­ing “Hamil­ton” into a mu­si­cal, which Michelle Obama called “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”

And yet — that shadow. To Woolf, ev­ery bi­og­ra­pher is “a crafts­man, not an artist . . . . The trou­ble lies with biography it­self. It im­poses con­di­tions, and those con­di­tions are that it must be based upon fact.” She ar­gues that only un­re­strained imag­i­na­tion can make art. I dis­agree. Facts are sim­ply the medium, as paint is to the painter. Of course, most painters suc­ceed as ar­ti­sans, not artists, and so do most bi­og­ra­phers.

To rise above crafts­man­ship, one must work with abun­dant, var­ied and com­pli­cated facts. Ch­er­now does that, pre­sent­ing re­search that bulks Grant to nearly 1,000 pages of nar­ra­tive. It al­lows him to write a rich and sen­si­tive por­trait of the in­ner Grant — from re­luc­tant West Point cadet to civil­ian fail­ure to tri­umphant gen­eral. He ex­haus­tively in­ves­ti­gates Grant’s al­co­holism and fraught re­la­tion­ships with his family. I ad­mire Ch­er­now’s hon­esty about con­tra­dic­tory ev­i­dence as well as Grant’s mis­takes.

We read biography to know a life but also to rat­ify our con­vic­tion that the in­di­vid­ual mat­ters. This forces the bi­og­ra­pher to be re­searcher, writer and his­to­rian si­mul­ta­ne­ously. How does the world shape the in­di­vid­ual, and the in­di­vid­ual the world? To what ex­tent are con­vic­tions, judg­ment and per­son­al­ity merely typ­i­cal, em­bed­ded in a larger con­text — and where does the in­di­vid­ual wrig­gle free? A biography that suc­ceeds as art com­bines schol­arly and lit­er­ary virtues. It ex­plains, in­ter­prets and car­ries a reader fully into a hu­man ex­is­tence. It of­fers il­lu­mi­na­tion and im­mer­sion.

As a his­to­rian, Ch­er­now proves some­what un­even. His re­search into Grant’s strug­gles with al­co­hol would be bet­ter if he dis­cussed the scale and in­ten­sity of the tem­per­ance move­ment; that would ex­plain con­tem­po­raries’ ob­ses­sion with drink and Grant’s per­sonal shame. Ch­er­now’s ac­count of Grant’s mil­i­tary ca­reer, how­ever, works well, par­tic­u­larly in ex­plor­ing his clos­est re­la­tion­ships. Most im­por­tant, the book cen­ters on the story of black lib­er­a­tion, from Grant’s em­brace of eman­ci­pa­tion as a gen­eral to his en­force­ment of civil rights as pres­i­dent. If African Amer­i­cans play too pas­sive a role in this telling (free­dom did not progress “in­eluctably”), Ch­er­now’s em­pha­sis is ex­actly right, and his ac­count of Grant’s views is re­veal­ing.

Ev­ery biography is a bro­ken mir­ror, re­flect­ing the past in­ex­actly. But Ch­er­now shows where a seem­ingly small dis­tor­tion ob­scures some­thing im­por­tant. In re­count­ing Jay Gould and Jim Fisk’s at­tempt to cor­ner the gold mar­ket in 1869, for ex­am­ple, he states in­cor­rectly that Wall Street quoted the price of gold per ounce. This is no mere tech­ni­cal er­ror. The “Gold Room” wasn’t a com­mod­ity mar­ket but an ex­change be­tween two do­mes­tic cur­ren­cies, both con­fus­ingly named “dol­lar”: the le­gal-ten­der pa­per green­back and the still-cir­cu­lat­ing gold dol­lar. The “gold pre­mium,” or price, was the num­ber of green­backs re­quired to buy $100 in gold coin. That fact is the door to a cham­ber of bit­ter con­tro­versy. Should money be a sub­stance with in­trin­sic value — or can gov­ern­ment in­vent it at will and ad­dress crip­pling de­fla­tion of a kind un­known to any Amer­i­can to­day? If Ch­er­now had ex­plained this, read­ers would know why Grant’s veto of the In­fla­tion Bill prob­a­bly cost the Repub­li­cans the 1874 midterm elec­tions and why the Green­back Party emerged as one of his­tory’s most suc­cess­ful in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal move­ments.

Ch­er­now shows lit­tle in­ter­est in the West. He writes that Gen. Philip Sheri­dan dis­patched Lt. Col. Ge­orge Arm­strong Custer to the Black Hills in the Great Sioux Reser­va­tion in 1874 to find gold, de­fil­ing a re­gion sa­cred to the Lako­tas. In fact, Sheri­dan sent him to scout a site for a fort, as part of a strat­egy to com­pen­sate for the Army’s man­power short­age. Custer did find gold, ig­nit­ing a rush of squat­ters. That in­va­sion led to war be­cause, as his­to­rian Robert Ut­ley writes, the Black Hills were a crit­i­cal nat­u­ral re­source bank that sus­tained Lakota no­madism. Ch­er­now misses the en­vi­ron­men­tal and strate­gic fac­tors that shaped Lakota na­tional im­per­a­tives as well as fed­eral poli­cies.

Strong re­search, im­per­fect his­tory — but what about Ch­er­now’s writ­ing? Bri­tish lit­er­ary critic David Lodge notes that non­fic­tion au­thors’ theft of the nov­el­ist’s tools dates back to the 19th-cen­tury writer Thomas Car­lyle. Telling a story through scenes, the cre­ation of ex­pec­ta­tions, the tech­niques of mys­tery and sus­pense, not to men­tion rhythm and lyri­cism — this be­longs in a biography of Tol­stoy as much as in Tol­stoy’s “War and Peace.” Un­for­tu­nately, Ch­er­now makes lit­tle use of these tools. His de­sign does not de­light with art­ful struc­ture and de­liv­ers no plea­sures of ex­pec­ta­tion, rev­e­la­tion or sur­prise. He rarely opens a chap­ter with sen­tences that hum the themes to come. He does not switch the point of view to al­low a sec­ondary char­ac­ter to ex­pand the book’s scope. He stacks up ad­jec­tives, cliches and stock phrases. “The quick-wit­ted Grant beat them to the punch and the town fell with­out a shot,” he writes. With each such sen­tence, Woolf’s shadow grows darker.

As a novel does, the best biography cre­ates a fully re­al­ized world. That re­quires not just re­search but se­lec­tion. Dur­ing a fel­low­ship at the New York Pub­lic Li­brary’s Cull­man Cen­ter, my col­leagues re­viewed a chap­ter of my Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt biography. In a scene that found Van­der­bilt on the edge of death, nov­el­ist Nathan Eng­lan­der noted my ref­er­ence to a me­teor that flamed over­head. “You re­al­ize you’re con­nect­ing Van­der­bilt to the uni­verse?” he asked. He was right, but it wasn’t the ef­fect I wanted. I had merely com­piled facts, fail­ing to con­sider their lit­er­ary im­pli­ca­tions. I wanted to say that earthy grit saved this un­spir­i­tual old sailor, so I took the me­teor out. It made me re­al­ize how much I had to learn about writ­ing.

In “Sa­muel Pepys,” bi­og­ra­pher Claire To­ma­lin evokes the mo­ment when her sub­ject first bought a note­book for his fa­mous di­ary: “When Pepys was in Corn­hill on 5 De­cem­ber 1659, the day he saw an ap­pren­tice shot through the head by sol­diers, the shops had their shut­ters up against the vi­o­lence in the streets. On an­other day be­fore the end of the year he was in Corn­hill again, and this time he went into the sta­tioner’s shop at the sign of the Globe, where John Cade sold pa­per and pens as well as the prints and maps Pepys loved to leaf through; and there he bought him­self a pa­per-cov­ered note­book, too fat to go into his pocket, and car­ried it home to Axe Yard.”

With­out one “likely” or “per­haps,” To­ma­lin con­nects the facts she knows to cre­ate a sense of a scene that no doc­u­ment de­scribes. She sends ac­tive verbs skit­ter­ing and bark­ing through the shop to bring alive Pepys’s an­tic­i­pa­tion, the prints ready for fin­ger­ing, the note­book he feels in his hand. It is vivid, and it is hon­est. To­ma­lin shows, in this rare com­bi­na­tion of bril­liant re­search, his­tory and lit­er­ary style, that a biography in­deed can be art.

Yet, Woolf her­self liked good crafts­man­ship, which Ch­er­now de­liv­ers. He guides us into the char­ac­ter of a fa­mously ret­i­cent man, re­veal­ing how he could be both a fail­ure and a con­queror, prin­ci­pled yet sur­pris­ingly naive.

T.J. Stiles is the au­thor of “The First Ty­coon: The Epic Life of Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt,” which won the Na­tional Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for biography. His most re­cent book is “Custer’s Tri­als: A Life on the Fron­tier of a New Amer­ica,” which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his­tory. He is cur­rently writ­ing a biography of Theodore Roo­sevelt.


A sen­si­tive por­trait of the in­ner life of Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War gen­eral and pres­i­dent, emerges in Ron Ch­er­now’s biography.

GRANT By Ron Ch­er­now Pen­guin Press. 1,074 pp. $40

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