Grant’s Life, in Short

Biography Is First in Concise ‘Eminent Lives Series’

Posted October 25, 2004 at 2:34pm

As he was approaching page 1,000 of his biographical sketch of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, author and publisher James Atlas recalled having a bit of a publishing epiphany.

“I thought that I would like to read short books,” he said with a laugh.

Short, but not exactly simple.

Atlas’ interest in developing a series of compact biographies eventually led to a successful undertaking in 1999 with Penguin Books that paired well-known contemporary writers with famous historical figures to give a unique perspective on some of history’s most notable and notorious characters.

Beginning this month, Atlas Books has teamed up with Harper Collins Publishing to continue the short biography venture under the new title, the Eminent Lives Series. And to kick off the new series Atlas tapped Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon and Shuster, to give his own fresh take on perhaps America’s most famous forgotten hero, Ulysses Grant.

Released earlier this month, Korda’s book, “Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero,” is the first in what Atlas believes will be a popular series among those who simply don’t have the time to read 1,000-page tomes.

“The one pitfall I feel we’ve avoided is people saying these are dumbed down” to fit the short biography mold, Atlas said of the series.

“Every writer has a figure who fascinates them,” he said. “In every case I would go to a writer whose work I admired and talk to them and brainstorm and come up with interesting and unlikely subjects.”

Other writer/subject pairings that have already been slated for the series include Robert Gottlieb on dancer and choreographer George Balanchine (which will be released Nov. 4), Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Morris on Ludwig von Beethoven.

“What we’re trying to do is find the dynamic between author and subject — there’s a creative tension there,” Atlas said.

And Korda’s new book finds that tension well.

In the course of this first “eminent life,” the reader not only finds himself wanting to read about Grant but also wanting to read Michael Korda on Grant. Korda, a best-selling author and military historian who served in the British Royal Air Force in the 1950s, is able to condense all of Grant — the perplexing mix of the lonely schoolboy, stubborn soldier, business failure, unrelenting general, loving husband and obscure president — into a vivid and engrossing 158 pages. He juxtaposes Grant’s military genius against his hatred of war itself and explains how history has labeled and largely forgotten about one of America’s greatest heroes. He warns that Grant’s lessons on how to wage war should not be forgotten in today’s perilous world.

“I’ve always been enormously interested in Grant,” said Korda. “Grant has always been an odd and reclusive figure. He never emerges quite as clearly as [Confederate General Robert E. Lee] does, largely because people don’t know what to make of Grant. … People have to struggle harder to understand him.”

And except for what he calls “a cult of Grant,” few people take the time to appreciate this complex American hero.

“He sort of slipped off the radar screen of American history sometime during the first World War and hasn’t really come back.”

History, Korda notes with more than a bit of disappointment, has written Grant off as a victorious, yet brutal, general. He’s remembered as a subpar president who drank and smoked too much. And though Grant did indeed have his faults — too trusting in business, devoid of social graces — Korda argues that Grant isn’t given credit for all his successes.

Grant’s life represents the typical American story, Korda explains. He rose from dim obscurity to enormous popularity and became a figure that represented the American ideal both at home and abroad.

“In his own day, Grant was thought of as a figure comparable to George Washington,” Korda said.

He was a devoted husband and a president whose foreign policy kept America out of both a war with France over Mexico and a war with England over Canada. His determination to be fair and his sheer common sense helped stitch back together a war-torn nation.

But Grant’s two greatest legacies, Korda writes, are his leadership on the battlefield and his written memoirs.

“There’s no question in my mind that Grant was an astonishing general, the best general America has ever produced. Grant embodied an absolutely distinctive style of warfare,” Korda said.

Grant understood that America succeeds at war when engaging the enemy continuously and relentlessly with the overwhelming strength of American industry and the full support of all Americans. It was a style of war that would be employed again with great success almost a century later by another great American hero, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“I think one of the things both Grant and Ike thought very strongly about is that war for Americans needs to be for a great cause and waged on a great scale and won as quickly as possible, then handed over to the civilians,” Korda said.

In his final chapter Korda warns that those lessons ring as true today as they did in the late 1800s.

“The difficulties of Reconstruction in the South taught Grant — not that he needed teaching — that armies of occupation are no substitute for political thought, and that generals are not necessarily the right people to institute basic political reforms or to reconstruct societies,” he writes. “Whenever we think about the uses of American power, we would do well to remember Ulysses S. Grant.”

And the best way to study Grant’s military success is by reading his memoir.

Finished just days before his death in July 1885, Grant’s tome is still regarded as a classic in American literature.

But like so much about his life, Grant’s memoirs are often misunderstood.

“There was an enormous fuss over [President Bill] Clinton’s memoirs, over whether they were as good as Grant’s,” Korda said.

But such a comparison, he said, is “nonsense.”

“It amused me enormously that everybody, including Clinton, was comparing it as a great presidential memoir — Grant’s memoirs have nothing to do with his presidency.

“It’s one of the great works of autobiographical military history” ending with Grant’s victory over Lee, he said. “You can place it right there beside Caesar and Napoleon” in the annals of military writing.

But perhaps the confusion over Grant’s memoir can be somewhat forgiven. At 1,400 pages, his tome isn’t exactly the quickest read.

Michael Korda will appear at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center on Nov. 22 for a panel discussion on the art of biography. The event takes place at 6:30 p.m., and a book signing will follow.