Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?
Apart from Ulysses and Julia, a vast library of biographies and historical studies devoted to the great Civil War general. To them comes this slender volume, inaugurating James Atlas’s Eminent Lives series, by noted memoirist/novelist/editor/bon vivant Korda (Horse People, 2003, etc.). Korda adds nothing whatever to the scholarship, but he has an evident and immediate sympathy for his subject, who, of course, is remembered just as much for his persistent alcoholism as for his victories at places like Vicksburg and Fort Donelson, just as much for the scandals that marred his presidency as for the efforts he made to effect the Reconstruction. Korda praises Grant’s virtues—“his reserve, his quiet determination, his courage in the face of adversity,” all of which came into play when the general was dying of cancer and racing against the clock to finish his famed memoirs, now much in the news as a contrast to those of Bill Clinton. He also offers a couple of wrinkles that might give other students of Grant pause: Korda sees Grant as, well, a touchy fellow, where other biographers have been amazed at the thickness of his hide; Korda breezily hints that Grant prized the presidency because he got to eat turkey at the White House every day, where other biographers pass that matter by. Korda is a charming and learned writer, as always. But, as wide-ranging as his cultural references are, he’s shaky on certain facts: Beyoncé is not a teenager; the term “hooker” is not an invention of the Civil War; and so forth. Such errors can undermine his authority, which is tenuous in the matter of Grant in the first place, especially now that so many historians have turned their attention to the general.
Inconsequential but pleasant. For meatier treatments, see Jean Edward Smith’s Grant (2001) and, more recently, Josiah Bunting’s brief life of the general and president (p. 612).