Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Review: Russell Bond on the New Grant Biography

imageThe Man In Grant's Tomb: A Review of H.W. Brands' The Man Who Saved the Union, Wall Street Journal, September 29-30, 2012

'It's a bad business to fall in love with dead people," historian Brooks D. Simpson has sensibly warned—yet biographers often do just that, particularly when presenting the lives of American military heroes. The foremost example is Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, unquestionably a great commander but one whose mistakes and human failings were glossed over for generations. Lee's daring victories against the odds were romanticized by biographers who cast him as the ideal gentleman-soldier and the symbol of the Lost Cause. Meanwhile, tradition portrayed Lee's adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, as a besotted butcher who won the Civil War by unimaginative reliance on superior manpower and whose tenure as president was characterized by bumbling and corruption.

A backswing of the pendulum was inevitable. In recent decades, historians such as Thomas Connelly have questioned Lee's character and military acumen, mocking him as "the Marble Man"—a West Point nickname for Lee now used to signal an icon above criticism. Even as Lee's reputation has declined, Grant's has ascended—so much so that it is now Grant who arguably deserves the "marble" mantle.

Grant has come to rival Abraham Lincoln as the Civil War's most popular and revered biographical subject. William S. McFeely's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Grant: A Biography" (1981) ushered in the modern era of Grant scholarship, but its still-critical take on Grant's generalship sparked a flurry of responses trending toward hagiography. More than a dozen biographies, "dual biographies" and studies of Grant have been published in the past 15 years, their authors lauding Grant as a "genius" and a "savior"—all the while insisting that he has been "overlooked" and "underrated." (More balanced treatments, such as Mr. Simpson's excellent "Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865," are the exception.) Recent historians have not so much drawn Grant's portrait as erected new monuments to him.

For full text of the review go to the Wall Street Jounal, September 2903, 2012

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