- Glittering Lies:U. S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Biography
Academic historians have a complicated relationship with biography. Many popular biographies for the general reading public tend towards hagiography at the expense of critical analysis, typically celebrating famous white men, for their heroic deeds. Such studies often lack sophisticated methodology or original research, essentially portraying their subjects as destined for greatness. Nuanced questions about society and culture are often absent. In 2009, the American Historical Review featured a scholarly roundtable discussion of the genre of biography, including its place in the academy. David Nasaw, in the roundtable's introduction, declared biography a "degraded form of historical writing" and the "profession's unloved step child."1 Roundtable participants sensed, nonetheless, a biographical "turn" in the field, acknowledging the genre's allure and value. As Lois Banner explained, biography "speaks to the human desire for interconnections with others," something particularly desirable in the early part of the twenty-first century.2 More recently, Daniel R. Meister made a plea for historians to accept biography "as an important subfield and begin to deliberately and actively encompass it."3 This type of historical writing, Meister suggested, perhaps more than any other, counters accusations that scholars are out of touch and that the field of history is over-specialized and balkanized by identity politics. One wonders, however, if there is a middle ground that would appeal to a broadly-based readership while also maintaining academic standards and recognizing cultural complexities.
Two new biographies of celebrated Union Civil War generals speak to the strengths and weakness of the genre. To be sure, neither book portends to offer anything really new to readers, nor has there been a dearth of studies about [End Page 57] either man. In 2001, Jean Edward Smith counted more than 130 biographies of Grant alone; Sherman has provided equally fertile ground for biographers. And yet, these two very long books published by trade presses and avidly consumed by readers demonstrate that biography isn't just surviving; it's thriving.
Ron Chernow is the author of wildly popular biographies, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize. His book Hamilton was the basis for the enormously successful Broadway play. James Lee McDonough, on the other hand, is a trained academic, Professor Emeritus of history from Auburn University, who has written multiple Civil War histories largely pitched to a popular audience of non-specialists and enthusiasts. Neither expresses any concerns with the genre of biography; instead they focus on narrating in great detail Grant's and Sherman's rise to prominence and their importance in the war. Chernow is more reflective of Grant's place in history, but throughout he seeks to celebrate him as someone who overcame daunting odds to become a four-star general and president. McDonough admits that when he started his book, he admired Sherman, but by the project's end, his feelings toward him became more mixed. In both, Grant and Sherman are presented as flawed yet remarkable men.
Chernow is the better storyteller. He revels in describing Grant's modest attire, unique gait, or particular way of clenching a cigar. The book's longest section understandably focuses on the looming secession crisis and Civil War, beginning in April 1860 and ending five years later. By the spring of 1865, Grant had dramatically transformed from an obscure store clerk to lieutenant general. Scattered throughout Chernow's dense descriptions are laudatory assessments of the general's character, behavior and military skills. He recounts Grant's childhood and young adult years, claiming that over this time he developed a reverence for women, personal modesty, physical courage, and an overall high-mindedness. Grant's 1848 marriage to Julia Dent, the daughter of Missouri slaveholders, was a match, Chernow emphasizes, based on love and respect. But six years later, Grant left the army under charges of drunkenness. He then tried a...