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02/26/2014

Ulysses S. Grant biographer Ron Chernow

This January, bestselling biographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow spent a week in the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library researching his forthcoming book.

Chernow, who has previously written about historical giants such as John D. Rockefeller, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton, has spent the last two and a half years delving into the life of another man who helped change the course of American history – Ulysses S. Grant.

The idea came to him in 2010, shortly after finishing his Pulitzer Prize winning biography on George Washington. Chernow knew that he wanted to begin a new project but felt that there were not many figures of comparable stature to Washington. Grant was one. Both men had been war heroes and presidents in the two most defining eras in American history: the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Chernow decided that Grant would be his new subject.

Between his "strong and often overbearing father" and his "equally difficult father-in-law," Grant and his wife, Julia, faced the difficulty of feuding families, a fact that is often overlooked in portraits of the general and president, Chernow said. "In a way, the Civil War was already being fought out before 1861 in the Grant family – between the Yankee family from Ohio and the Southern family from Missouri."

Chernow explained his philosophy of biography this way: "I try to put at the center of the book a psychological portrait of the character, and I also try to synthesize both the public and the private lives. The material at the Grant Library is invaluable. It will allow me to present a rounded portrait of this person that I hope will make him seem very real on the page."

Until his visit to the Grant Library, Chernow immersed himself in secondary-source research to give himself a broad background. He spent a three-month hiatus after ankle surgery reading the Civil War trilogies of Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton and has since read nearly eighty books about Grant, the Civil War and Reconstruction. He then spent 2013 carefully perusing all 32 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.

During his week at the Grant Library, Chernow worked his way through Series 2 of the unpublished Grant material. The 32 published volumes represent only 20% of the materials in the Grant Library, so he believes having access to the unpublished material will give him a wealth of new information. "I feel lucky to be the beneficiary of [former Executive Director John Y.] Simon's work," he said, "And the staff at the Grant Library rolled out the red carpet for me. The Grant Library is an absolute jewel. I'm going to be back many times."

Dr. John Marszalek, Executive Director of the Grant Library, praised Chernow's previous work and his plans for his Grant biography. "Ron Chernow is one of the nation's leading biographers, and his praise of our Grant collection is most meaningful. I can't wait to read his completed book."