This little book will inevitably be compared with Josiah Bunting's similarly short biography of one of the world's greatest military figures (Forecasts, June 14). The marriage of author and subject works well, although Korda (Horse People: Scenes from the Riding Life, etc.) doesn't have much new to say about Lincoln's favorite general. That's not surprising, since everyone now writes about Grant in the shadow of Edmund Wilson, who gave new fame to Grant's memoirs, and William McFeely, who has written the best full biography to date. Even so, Korda freshly characterizes his man without psychologizing an unpromising subject. Grant was, after all, unyieldingly stolid and tight-lipped. While his qualities of directness and taciturnity made him a great general, they didn't yield up a fascinating man or a great president. Korda does about as good a job of bringing Grant to life as possible and handles all the essential set pieces-Grant as Mexican War officer, Civil War general, president and author of masterful memoirs on the eve of his death-with much skill. He's less perceptive than Bunting about Grant's presidency and occasionally puts unnecessary erudition on display, but on the whole this is a highly readable, accurate study of the man. (Oct. 1) FYI: This title launches the new Eminent Lives series, edited by James Atlas. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
This lively and well-constructed short biography of Ulysses Grant follows the method of Plutarch, describing Grant's life from the standpoints of narrative and character. Narratively, Korda outlines as well as anyone ever has the odd structure of Grant's life: two towering peaks of heroism rising out of a muddy plain of perplexity and failure. The first peak was his extraordinary rise to greatness and victory in the Civil War, after years of obscurity in the Army and various failed ventures. The second, following a dismal presidency and an aimless post-presidency climaxed by financial scandal and ruin, saw Grant race the clock to write his memoirs (and provide for his wife) as he died slowly and painfully of throat cancer. Korda concisely summarizes Grant's military gifts, describes his deeply happy marriage with the "walleyed" daughter of a slaveholding Confederate, and documents his apparently congenitally bad judgment about anything having to do with money. This failing blighted both his public and private lives. It condemned him to failure before the war, disgraced his presidency, and bankrupted him afterward. Even so, he was a great man, and Korda's biography is an excellent introduction to an important American life.
Korda, Simon & Schuster's editor in chief, initiates a new series of short biographies by trying to compact a complicated man into a short compass. Grant earned a reputation as a general and later a writer for being direct, making his orders and his autobiography clear and compelling. His military philosophy was simple: find the enemy, hit him hard, and keep moving. Korda might have taken Grant's advice. He succeeds in keeping Grant's life moving along in a series of telling anecdotes that reveal Grant as a man of unprepossessing presence in peace, cool temperament in war, bad luck in business, innocence and prescience in politics, and good fortune in marriage. But Korda relies overly on William McFeely's Grant: A Biography (1981) to get the man, and he stumbles over facts, misreads context, and wastes words in an un-Grantlike manner. Still, Korda rightly recognizes that Grant's character was more complex than the usual stereotype of him as a butcher in battle and a bungler in politics, and Grant emerges as the greatest general of his day. Useful for major public and academic libraries, but McFeely's book remains the better buy. Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Adult/High School-While these books are roughly the same length and both provide an easy read, they focus on different aspects of the subject. Bunting's goal is a re-examination of one of the most vilified presidents in American history. Though the author discusses the man's life before and after his presidency, he looks more closely at Grant's record and discovers more in it than has generally been credited. At the end, it must be said that Grant's intentions and character are more praiseworthy than his accomplishments, but one cannot gainsay the successes that he oversaw in foreign policy and in his determined enforcement of civil rights for freedmen in the South. Korda's volume is interested in investigating the psychology of one of the great Americans of the 19th century. He examines Grant's successes and failures and shows the parts of his character that are evident in both. In doing so, he produces a gripping study of the man, operating successfully under the stresses of war, enduring failure in the stresses of peace, and coping with his fatal cancer. It is a broad, sweeping view of the man's life and naturally tends to focus more on his military than on his political career. Neither book tells the whole story; together, though, they provide an admirable introduction to one of the great men of American history.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Who's buried in Grant's tomb? Apart from Ulysses and Julia, a vast library of biographies and historical studies devoted to the great Civil War general. To them comes this slender volume, inaugurating James Atlas's Eminent Lives series, by noted memoirist/novelist/editor/bon vivant Korda (Horse People, 2003, etc.). Korda adds nothing whatever to the scholarship, but he has an evident and immediate sympathy for his subject, who, of course, is remembered just as much for his persistent alcoholism as for his victories at places like Vicksburg and Fort Donelson, just as much for the scandals that marred his presidency as for the efforts he made to effect the Reconstruction. Korda praises Grant's virtues-"his reserve, his quiet determination, his courage in the face of adversity," all of which came into play when the general was dying of cancer and racing against the clock to finish his famed memoirs, now much in the news as a contrast to those of Bill Clinton. He also offers a couple of wrinkles that might give other students of Grant pause: Korda sees Grant as, well, a touchy fellow, where other biographers have been amazed at the thickness of his hide; Korda breezily hints that Grant prized the presidency because he got to eat turkey at the White House every day, where other biographers pass that matter by. Korda is a charming and learned writer, as always. But, as wide-ranging as his cultural references are, he's shaky on certain facts: Beyonce is not a teenager; the term "hooker" is not an invention of the Civil War; and so forth. Such errors can undermine his authority, which is tenuous in the matter of Grant in the first place, especially now that so many historians have turned theirattention to the general. Inconsequential but pleasant. For meatier treatments, see Jean Edward Smith's Grant (2001) and, more recently, Josiah Bunting's brief life of the general and president (p. 612).