- "American Ulysses": A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White
It has been well over a century since the death of the man born Hiram Ulysses Grant. In that time, authors have penned hundreds of books about Grant, including highly regarded biographies from the likes of William McFeely, Joan Waugh, Jean Edward Smith, and Brooks D. Simpson. Add to this the monumental personal memoirs of Grant—an autobiography from a former president and general that continues to set a high bar for this genre—and it would seem that there is no shortage of works on the unassuming Midwesterner.
Thus, one is tempted to ask the question of why another biography is needed. Ronald C. White directly addresses this query, arguing that Grant was "an exceptional person and leader" (xxiv) whose historical reputation deserves a reappraisal. Once glorified on an 1870 medallion as the country's defender along with Washington and Lincoln, Grant's historical standing began to fade by the end of the nineteenth century.
The author set out to create a new biography of Grant that examines "elements of Grant overlooked and undervalued" (xxv). These include incorporating greater emphasis on Grant's wife Julia, his horsemanship, his love of painting, his voracious appetite for novels, his fascination with Mexico, and the influence of his Methodist faith on his character and public life. In short, White noted, he attempted to "try to understand Grant from the inside out" (xxv) instead of focusing primarily on politics and war, as have many previous biographers.
American Ulysses is the product of many years of research and thought by White, who modestly mentioned in his introduction that when writing his earlier biography of Lincoln, he lacked full awareness of Grant. White exhibits a mastery of the primary sources, especially the Grant Papers, the Huntington Library's Civil War collection, and the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site archives. While admittedly there are a limited number of new archival discoveries by White, this does not detract from the value of this book. [End Page 120]
White appeared to aim for an audience straddling the thin line between pure scholarship and a literate general reader, and he succeeds in this effort with a clear and engrossing writing style. There is value to historians in this work, both for previously unpublished sources as well as the fresh assessment of the life of Grant. White uses unnumbered endnotes referenced by page number and excerpts, appeasing both source-obsessed historians and general readers who find endnote numbers a distraction.
The book generally follows a chronological approach, though the section on Grant's presidency shifts to a thematic arrangement. Chapters typically begin with thought-provoking anecdotes or vignettes, and these flourishes add to the value of the book, both in terms of hooking readers and illuminating aspects of Grant's personality. At times the author's prose borders on the lyrical, such as his description of the Rio Grande as a "muddy, yellow-gray river" (69) or the "rapid staccato of the telegraph" (383) carrying news of the Shenandoah Valley campaign.
Practitioners and aficionados of Ohio history might find the chapters on Grant's childhood and teenaged years to be unexciting. There is little that is new in these sections, though to be fair to White, there are far fewer primary sources on this period of Grant's life. In particular, though, the time that the sixteen-year-old Grant spent at abolitionist John Rankin's academy in Ripley, Ohio, might merit more than a few paragraphs of narrative in American Ulysses. Surely the school year Grant studied in Ripley—a major center of both the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad activity—influenced in some way the adult Grant's views on emancipation and Reconstruction.
However, this book otherwise represents an important contribution to the body of literature related to Grant and his life. White guides readers into fascinating glimpses of Grant the human being: we consider such influences as the novels he read...