Updated: Friday, September 29, 2017, 8:27 AM
NEW YORK – Ron Chernow’s timing is exquisite, even if it took six years and 25,000 index cards to get to this moment.
As Americans debate the continued reverence for Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests, the biographer of Hamilton – the Hamilton who inspired the theatrical juggernaut – delivers his latest brick of a book, Grant (publishing Oct. 10), to help rescue the Union commander and 18th president from the ash heap of history.
Ulysses S. Grant, you may recall, won the Civil War. He was the military architect who triumphed on multiple battlefields and vanquished Lee in Virginia after six other Union generals failed.
Yet after the South’s defeat, “Lee was puffed up to almost godlike proportions, not only as a great general, but as a perfect Christian gentleman, this noble and exemplary figure and an aristocratic example,” says Chernow, 68, sitting in his sun-splashed kitchen on the top floor of the 19th-century Brooklyn Heights brownstone where he rents two stories. “The glorification of Lee and the denigration of Grant are two sides of the same coin. We’ve created our own mythology of what happened.”
Grant is Chernow’s second successive book about an American general who became president, following the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington (2010). It is also his first volume since Chernow became a household name – a claim few scholarly biographers can make.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s little play helped sell more than a million copies of Alexander Hamilton, making Chernow the rare historian of 900-page, footnote-saturated tomes who can claim that “teenagers all over the country want to take selfies with me.”
Now, he’s moved from the Founding Fathers on the one- and 10-dollar bills to the Civil War victor on the 50, a man adored by Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
Yet, “I’m giving you every reason not to buy this book,” he admits, gesturing at the three-pound door stopper by his elbow. “It’s $40. Its more than 1,000 pages.”
It’s 1,074 pages, to be exact. But he’s grateful. “To my loyal readers, who have soldiered on through my lengthy sagas,” the dedication reads.
“This is a story unlike any that I have written, maybe one more people can identify with,” says Chernow, who has also written biographies of John D. Rockefeller (the masterful Titan), J.P. Morgan and the Warburg banking family. Those previous subjects, he says, “were built for success. They had a focus, a drive, an intelligence, and an ambition that when you begin the story, you know they’re going to succeed.”
Grant “goes through more failure and hardship and degradation I think than anyone else in American history who becomes president.” He notes, “I was so moved by the pathos of the story, of a bright, hard-working and fundamentally decent man who again and again is defeated by circumstance and seems destined to a life of complete obscurity.” Grant “becomes a hero despite himself.”
Grant’s grand ambition was to be a math professor – an assistant math professor – at the U.S. Military Academy, from which he graduated in the middle of his class. He was plagued by money woes until the end, fleeced by the Bernie Madoff of his day. Grant’s wife, Julia, the daughter of an unrepentant slave owner, had a pronounced taste for status.
“The psychological portrait is at the center of all these books,” says Chernow, a New York native – his schmear of an accent is a giveaway – with English degrees from Yale and Cambridge, who began his career as a freelance journalist. Most of his subjects had “an impossible parent.” Grant was doubly cursed, with an impossible father and father-in-law, both of whom lived well into old age.
“This man who had been a clerk in a leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, a man who was almost 40 years old,” Chernow says, a man no one marked for success. “And four years later, he’s a general with a million soldiers under his command. Is there a more startling transformation in American history?”
Grant is remembered as a heavy drinker, a president riddled by scandal, scoundrels and nepotism, all of which Chernow addresses.
“It was always Grant, the drunkard. I felt they got it wrong,” he says, describing the general as opposing two enemies during the war, the Confederacy and liquor. “He was Grant, the alcoholic.”
As recently as 1996, a poll of historians ranked Grant as an abject failure, scraping the bottom of the presidential barrel along with Warren G. Harding, Richard Nixon and James Buchanan. That assessment has begun to change.
Grant was the two-term president of the Reconstruction, an era of extraordinary if fleeting gains for African-Americans. It was also a time of relentless violence fomented by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, which Chernow deems “the largest outbreak of domestic terrorism in American history, where thousands of people were killed.” The Department of Justice, established during Grant’s presidency, brought 3,000 indictments against Klan members and other agitators.
For many American students, the war stops cold with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination days later, on April 15, 1865. “We historians, in the wake of the controversy over Confederate monuments, we have to use this as a teachable moment,” Chernow says. “Reconstruction is the great black hole that remains to be filled. Even experts on the Civil War don’t really understand its full significance.”
Chernow’s wife, Valerie, a community college professor, died in 2006. He still wears his wedding ring. He’s “a pretty active cultural consumer,” he says, of all things that New York has to offer: the Metropolitan Opera, film, theater, art, the Yankees.
Tidy, too. His immaculate study displays the thousands of 4-by-6-inch index cards, amounting to 22 boxes, that he compiled in researching Grant. The task did not daunt him. “There were 900 books on Washington when I began writing on him,” he says.
“He’s a very happy writer,” says his friend, the financial writer Roger Lowenstein. “Ron often uses the phrase ‘Never underestimate the laziness of your predecessors.’ ”
Nine years ago, Miranda prophetically purchased Chernow’s Hamilton before going on vacation and envisioned – what else? – a hip-hop musical about the nation’s first treasury secretary. He enlisted the biographer as the show’s historical adviser. Chernow asked to experience the musical fully, to be as involved as he could be, to attend one performance seated in the orchestra pit and to sit in on the album recording. He estimates that he has seen the show “dozens of times,” the young cast becoming a second family. (Chernow has no children.)
He spent his days with Grant, his nights with Hamilton. He’s listed in the show’s playbill and, though he demurs on the subject – “I don’t go there” – he has a reported 1 percent royalty of the show’s adjusted grosses, which amounted to an estimated $900,000 in 2016. This year, with three additional productions, his return is substantially larger.
After the musical’s first week, Chernow called his longtime editor Ann Godoff and said, “Print up a lot of copies of Hamilton. Everyone’s coming up to the theater and saying, ‘Mr. Chernow, I loved the show. I was embarrassed to realize how little I knew about the history of the country.’ ”
Godoff, Penguin Press president and editor in chief, says, “I remember thinking, ‘Ha ha ha.’ Then we went to the Public Theater, and there were a lot of people crying, and I was crying for my author. What this meant, watching his whole career and life, was knowing that I was experiencing this transformative experience.”
“Grant,” Godoff says, is an entirely different biography. “You feel his vulnerability, as well as his successes. He feels a figure much more capable of our empathy.”
Chernow hopes that with his book, people will reassess the hero of the Civil War and his presidency.
“There have been other good books on Grant, but in terms of dramatizing and humanizing this character, and making the character vividly come alive on the page, I feel that’s my comparative advantage,” Chernow says.
He only has to point to Hamilton to prove his point.
Read full story: How do you top 'Hamilton'? Author Ron Chernow is about to find out