GRANT: A Biography by William S. McFeely
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GRANT: A Biography

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Much has been written about Grant the chronic failure, Grant the unpretentious war hero, Grant the temporizing, corruption-tinged president; but almost no one has tried to fuse Grant's three lives into a coherent, comprehensive portrait--one that would explain, necessarily, why the statesmanship and common touch so evident at Appomattox deserted Grant in the White House. Thus the importance of Holyoke historian McFeely's big biography, notwithstanding, its serious shortcomings. McFeely proclaims two interests: in ""Grant's role in racial matters"" and in Grant himself as ""an ordinary American"" out ""to make his mark"" in the mid-19th-century. But the book is never so successful as in its first 70 pages on Grant's early life--when only his psychological development is at issue. We meet Grant's tanner father--once a deserted child, forever scrambling. We see the ingenuous young Ulysses bested in a trade--to his humiliation. He is sent to West Point for lack of other prospects, and hates military life; he regards the Mexican War as ""unjust,"" but finds the fighting a stimulus; he marries the better-born Julia, who will be ambitious for them both. Then, stationed on the West Coast--without Julia or other anchors, other companions--he sees his money-making hopes vanish, his military future bleak; and he despairs: ""Grant did not leave the army because he was a drunk,"" McFeely writes, ""he drank and left the army because he was profoundly depressed."" So, affectingly, to Grant, at 38, clerking in his father's Galena store--at the outbreak of the Civil War. McFeely's hold on Grant's personality and character continues through the war years: we watch Grant come ""alive,"" extend his authority by ""giving the politicians victories,"" deliberately pursue ""a people's war"" of attrition and annihilation, cannily promote Southern peace feelers. But McFeely fails either to clearly describe the military engagements or to clearly delineate the larger scene--a problem compounded, postwar, by his shift from a chronological narrative to topical chapters. And these, on various aspects of Grant's two-term presidency, are not so much essays as highly selective dramatizations. To McFeely, Grant became president because, to retain his eminence, he had no place else to go; and once president, he was a captive: ""Personally, he was terrified of obscurity; publicly, he was terrified of the obscure."" Hence--to compress and simplify--his failure to protect the Indians from ""their exterminators,"" the freedmen from their oppressors, the common folk from the moneyed interests, etc. This view has some psychological and social substance, but it is pursued to the disregard of political complexities, the feasibility of various policies, the possibility of alternative interpretations. Still, Grant grows in interest here--and the very assemblage of material breaks new ground.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0393323943
Publisher: Norton