Book Notes: American Ulysses

Reading Ronald White’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant in the midst of our current political climate makes one long for men and women in American leadership with strong moral character and a humble disposition.  Over the years, I have read my share of Civil War histories and presidential biographies. Without question, White’s book ranks near the top of my list of favorite works.  Why did I enjoy it so much?

First, White’s writing style is powerful, active, and compact.  He covers the amazing sweep of Grant’s life with enough detail to place you in the story, yet keeps the narrative moving.  I could easily imagine how an author could get lost in the weeds after years of research and writing on such an amazing life.  White resists this temptation by using short sentences, active verbs, and concise analysis.  I haven’t read White’s material before.  After this book, I confess: I’m a fan.

Second, the arc of Grant’s life is simply amazing.  I knew the larger elements – Civil War general and US President.  But I didn’t know the rest of the story: Grant’s service in the Mexican War and time stationed out west, his loving relationship with his wife Julia, leaving the army to put his hand to business, his amazing climb in the army after re-entering the service during the war, his world tour after his presidency, and his herculean effort to publish his memoirs while fighting cancer.  Every part of this man’s life is fascinating and interesting.

Third, the character of Grant is personally challenging.  White comments throughout the biography on Grant’s plain style, his unassuming nature and gentle humility.  Grant was an introvert, uncomfortable with self-promotion, and always considerate of others.  He was an advocate for those facing injustice: American Indians and recently freed slaves.  He used his power to help those who had no voice.  How can a man with this kind of servant, humble leadership rise to the highest positions of power in 19th century America?  It’s a fascinating question and stands in polar opposition to today’s political culture.

I give this book my highest recommendation.  Read it to learn about one of America’s most significant figures, and read it because it is so much fun.

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