Acclaimed biographer Ron Chernow sat down with MSNBC host Chris Hayes at PEN World Voices Festival this past Sunday to discuss his newest book, “Grant.” The discussion explored Ulysses S. Grant’s complicated life and his changing legacy as a commander and president. Attendees enjoyed a pleasant give-and-take between Chernow and Hayes — both intelligent and engaging thinkers.
Hayes, the host of “All in With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC, kicked off the event by asking about Grant as a figure and the historiography of his life. Grant has been regarded differently from historian to historian, and this most recent 1,000-page biography is Chernow’s attempt at memorializing the misunderstood, underappreciated man as a Civil War gamechanger and champion of the then-recently-freed slaves during the Reconstruction era.
Chernow explained that Grant, unlike Alexander Hamilton, was an enigma. Even after spending six years on “Grant” — four years researching, two years writing — Chernow described the former U.S. president and Civil War commander as a mystery. Grant was somewhat of a failure in certain aspects of his life — Chernow mentioned his utter incompetence as a store clerk in Illinois.
Yet as Hayes pointed out, with Chernow in agreement, Grant was a military genius. His mediocrity in provincial life contradicted his military and political successes, but was always with him nonetheless.
Chernow lovingly described Grant as loyal to a fault. He stuck by his friends so ardently that he was often deceived by his friends and his cabinet. Chernow explained that this was one of Grant’s biggest regrets looking back on his presidency.
Hayes brought up Grant’s alcoholism, which Chernow explained was a common weakness exploited by Grant’s opponents that was actually a very complicated part of his life. Grant never allowed his alcoholism to interfere with his work, but would instead leave his camp after a battle and spend two or three days binge drinking in a nearby town.
After briefly touching on Grant’s biography, Chernow and Hayes moved on to the consequences Grant’s presidency had on subsequent centuries in the U.S. and on the larger racial milieu of the United States. Grant, born in an abolitionist town in Ohio, worked to destroy the Ku Klux Klan and fought hard for legal equality for African-Americans in the Reconstruction era. He considered the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, his most important legal stride, and America’s most significant step since the Declaration of Independence.
Chernow called Grant “one of the most reticent people in history,” and said in response to an audience question that his next work is going to be a biography of Mark Twain in his later years. Audience members responded with delighted oohs and ahs, as Chernow laughed and disclosed that working with Twain’s primary sources has been much easier than working with Grant’s.
Chernow has published a number of works, but his name gained fame with the 2015 release of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway sensation “Hamilton,” which was based on Chernow’s biography of the revolutionary hero.
The enigmatic life and legacy of Grant certainly posed a challenge to Chernow, but his brilliance and sheer plenitude of knowledge was an assurance that his newest biography is a comprehensive exploration of Grant’s life. His fresh take on the life of a towering but under appreciated American figure is sure to delight and inform readers, as his chat with Hayes on Sunday did for attendees.
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