Top critical review
An Encomium, not a Biography
Reviewed in the United States on August 19, 2018
I admire the way Chernow writes, and he can certainly spin a scene, but I found this book problematic for two reasons. First, it is clear Chernow wants to write the definitive, authoritative biography of Grant--an admirable undertaking--but as a result he weighs down the narrative with altogether too many unnecessary details: biographies of people he discusses but once, for example, or speculations about various individuals' mental states, or fallings out with former colleagues and business associates. As a result, he not only skimps on those things that are truly important, it is difficult to separate that which he finds significant from that which he includes for the sake of being inclusive. One side effect: the book's length, which is inordinate for what is, in effect, a popular history. At the same time, various events could have used greater contextualization--even in the nineteenth century, the United States was operating in a global environment, and labor unrest in the US during Grant's administration, for example, or the fight over cheap money in a period of international depression can only be understood in their global contexts. The inclusion of useless detail--sometimes bordering on trivia--makes that contextualization impossible in terms of length of the book alone.
Just as problematic, it is clear that Chernow admires Grant to the point of hero-worship. There is good reason for such admiration: As historians began to understand the importance of "Radical Reconstruction" and put slavery and race front and center in their writings, our perception of people like Grant who played a truly heroic role during and after the Civil War has undergone a sweeping revision. But this book goes way too far. This is hardly a critical biography: Some of Grant's major flaws are rationalized or defended (the ongoing accusations of drinking which Chernow all to often dismisses as hearsay or as aberrations in life of struggle with alcohol abuse), others are simply excused as the result of naivete or trust in people who deceived him or the temper of the times (the massive corruption during his presidential administration, the gifts Grant received from plutocrats). Because of Chernow's hero worship, I found it difficult to believe his analysis--perhaps the greatest problem a historian can face.