I have several shelves full of books devoted to the American Civil War. They are, almost without exception, big books. If they are not multi-volume works (three, four, even eight volumes is not unusual), they are generally an inch or more thick. There is something about the Civil War that encourages detail and prolixity. Perhaps it is because the Civil War is something that engenders obsession: you don’t read casually about the war, or at least not for long; rather the war encourages a love of the minute, the nuanced, the minute-by-minute, item-by-item precision that fills these books. And that counts not just for the histories of the war, but also for the biographies of its prominent participants. There is no such thing as a thin book on Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln, and most particularly not on Ulysses S. Grant.
In which case, the 1,000+ pages of Ron Chernow’s new biography is par for the course. It’s a good book, in the sense that a good biography should help you see the subject more clearly and understand their life or work more thoroughly. In truth I don’t think I learned anything new from the one-third of the book devoted to the four years of the Civil War; but then, I have, over the years, immersed myself in that conflict pretty thoroughly so it would have been a little unexpected if anything in this part of the book surprised me. But I learned a great deal from the one-third of the book devoted to the eight years he spent as President, and particularly the years after the presidency. For instance, I had not appreciated the extent to which he became a politician only after he left the White House. And though I knew he was gullible all his life when it came to business, the extent to which he was bamboozled by those he trusted is still a shock. Nor had any of my previous reading prepared me for the very gruesome details of the cancer that ate away his tongue and throat.
Moreover, like every book I have ever read about America in the 19th century, it is crammed full of those coincidences and connections that makes it seem that this vast country and huge population must actually have been very small and contained. At one point, Grant’s father worked for John Brown’s father, and indeed worked alongside Brown.
Yet at the same time, it is a frustrating book, a book that annoyed me in several ways. One of the most irritating ways is when it comes to chronology. We live our lives in time, there is a sequence to everything, and though that sequence, A then B then C then …, isn’t the be-all and end-all of things it is important to provide a shape. I don’t want to read a biography that mechanically tells me: first he did this, then he did that, then he did something else. That isn’t a helpful way of understanding a life. But at the same time, I don’t want to read a biography where you are constantly having to stop and ask: hang on, did this come before that? Chernow is rather too prone to letting the chronology get hopelessly mixed up.
Sometimes this is trivial. After leaving the White House Grant embarked on what turned into a world tour. Chernow explains, in sometimes exhaustive detail, how Grant and his party arrived in Liverpool, went on to Manchester, then to London, and then Belgium, Germany, Italy. And then, having got Grant to Italy, he suddenly starts talking about a speech Grant gave in Newcastle. When did this happen? Did Grant travel back from Italy to Britain? Or was this before he went to London? There is no clue. But later, when Grant is cruising the Mediterranean, his itinerary takes him to Italy, and Chernow distinctly implies that this was his only visit to the country. So what, we are suddenly wondering, about that visit after Germany. And so it goes on. If we follow Chernow, that tour seems to have been a remarkable zig-zag affair.
Of course, the exact itinerary of his world tour probably doesn’t matter over much in the grand scheme of things. But there is a similar disregard of chronology in several places during the account of the Civil War. Some of these I identified only because I am pretty thoroughly immersed in the details of that war, but all of them tend to confuse the issue of what happened where and when. And then, during the coverage of Grant’s presidency, we are continually being told that in November he did this, but in July he did that, with no idea whether this was the previous July or the following July, whether one action was the cause or the consequence of the other.
The chronological confusions of the book are a structural problem, but there is also a thematic problem that I found frustrating.
Grant was an alcoholic. Drinking was endemic in the peacetime army that he joined as a young man, and during the years before the Civil War when he consistently failed at every business he attempted, he drank even more. It didn’t take much to get him hopelessly drunk. He drank most when he was bored, or when he was away from his wife, Julia, whom he doted on. He was certainly drunk at several points during the Civil War, but never at moments of action. After the war, when he was more consistently in the presence of his family, he started to master his drinking. During his presidency, and again during his world tour when he was regularly hosted at banquets by the rich and powerful, there are consistent stories that he would turn his wine glass upside down and refuse all drink except water. His epic battle against alcoholism was so successful that at the end of his life, when doctors were regularly prescribing whiskey or brandy to alleviate the pain of his cancer, he was unable to drink the stuff.
Of course, his early drinking was the stuff of legend, and throughout his life his enemies (of whom he had many), his rivals (of whom he had even more), and those who were simply jealous or mischievous, would inevitably spread stories about him being drunk and incapable. Most of these stories were malicious, the vast majority were demonstrably untrue (particularly later in his life), and many of the rest were wildly exaggerated. They damaged him, but not really all that much. Lincoln’s response to stories of Grant’s drinking, when he suggested that they should send a case of Grant’s favourite whiskey to every other general in the army in the hope that it would encourage them to fight as well, seems to have been typical of how most people responded. Certainly, stories of his drinking never seemed to have dulled the lustre of his name in the public eye.
Chernow is, understandably, anxious to get at the truth of Grant’s alcoholism and his victory over it. This is commendable. But it leads him to recount, in often excessive detail, every one of the malicious tales of Grant’s drinking. So much so that at times they overwhelm the narrative. The chapters on the Civil War sometimes seem to spend longer recounting Grant’s battles with drink than they do recounting his battles with the Confederates, even though many (or indeed most) of the battles with drink were entirely fictitious. And after the war, when Grant’s drinking had for the most part stopped, Chernow still regularly halts the narrative in order to give yet another false or at least highly unlikely account of Grant being drunk and incapable. The result is that at times the subject of Grant’s drinking seems to overwhelm everything else, and the falsehoods about his drunkenness take up greater space and gain greater weight than the facts of the case.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent book well worth your time and attention. But the way Grant’s alcoholism, and perhaps even more the stories about his drinking, are handled tends to overbalance the book somewhat. And Chernow’s problems with chronology, an issue oddly common in rather too many biographies, is something I find particularly irritating.