Talking to Ron Chernow is like talking to your favorite professor from college. He’s erudite, gracious and eloquent, but never lets you feel like he knows a lot more than you do, even though he does.
The Pulitzer-winning biographer’s best-known work might be Alexander Hamilton, inspiration for the hit musical Hamilton. His new biography, Grant, is a 1,000-page tome that reads more like Tolstoy than a scholarly work. It tells the story of our often-misunderstood 18th president, who endured poverty, was a brilliant general during the Civil War, helped establish the Justice Department, worked to crush the Ku Klux Klan, and presided over the 15th Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote.
Reached by phone recently, Chernow, who speaks at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures on Mon., Oct. 30, shared his thoughts on the art of history, the presidency, and Grant, the man.
Many critics have pointed out that your works can be read by scholars as well as generalists. Who is your ideal reader?
My aim has always been to straddle both the lay and specialized audiences. I wanted to write a big, sweeping, epic saga of the Civil War and Reconstruction. There are wonderful stories in the book that have been told before; at the same time, I have an enormous amount of information that will be new even to people who have spent a lifetime specializing in the period.
Compared to most historians, your writing strikes me as literary. Does the ability to write well help you as a biographer?
Absolutely. My story is simple. I didn’t study history in college. I did two degrees in English literature. When I got out of school I started working as a freelance magazine writer. It was when I was in my mid-30s that I discovered history. I really feel that biography is not only a branch of history, but a branch of literature.
Describe your process.
When I started working on the book, I met a friend who asked me, “How do you write a great biography about someone who’s written a great autobiography?” I thought long and hard about that. I’m looking for the silences and evasions. There were many in [Grant’s] memoirs. I spent a lot of time probing his repeated business failures before the Civil War, particularly that low point of his life, when he ends up selling firewood on the street corners in St. Louis. There also is no mention of his struggle with alcoholism. It’s always significant what people want to talk about, and even more significant what they don’t want to talk about.
I sensed that you were seeking to question common assumptions about Grant.
Yes. I really wanted to combat the stereotype that this was a failed presidency marred by scandal, nepotism and cronyism. All of that stuff happened. But I tried to make the major story what he did to protect the four million former slaves, which triggered a violent backlash in the South. The story we really need to know today is the story of Reconstruction, because we’re still dealing with those issues, as evidenced by the Confederate-monuments controversy.
You delve into Grant’s deep sense of compassion.
I tried to show that from an early age that he had a sympathy for animals, for the underdog. By nature, by instinct, he’s someone who defends the defenseless. In 1858 he owns one slave. Probably got him as a gift. But he frees the man, although he could desperately use the money.
How would he view the conduct of the presidency today?
The big story of Grant’s presidency, and all major presidencies, is that the president has to show moral authority. There has to be a kind of moral clarity. And I think what we’ve seen with the major presidents in history is that they’ve acted to expand tolerance and freedom, and heighten the sense of political inclusiveness. I think that’s the big lesson for today.
Liberal arts majors get a bad rap. What would you say to aspiring history majors in 2017?
One of the most upsetting trends in recent years is the declining number of college graduates majoring in the humanities. I feel that history is more important than ever. You can’t understand American politics without a knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Who we are as a people — our knowledge of democratic institutions and ideas — that’s all a question of memory. The Republic, in the last analysis, has to exist in our minds. And it’s really formed from the memory of who we have been, in order to know who we are today, and what direction we should go in the future.