T.J. Stiles is the author of “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for biography. His most recent book is “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for history. He is currently writing a biography of Theodore Roosevelt.
In the essay “The Art of Biography,” Virginia Woolf asks, “Is biography an art?” She admits that the question is “ungenerous” but adds, “There it is, whenever a new biography is opened, casting its shadow on the page; and there would seem to be something deadly in that shadow.”
Woolf’s question hovers over all biographers, even the most accomplished. It comes now for Ron Chernow, the author of “Grant,” a new account of the Civil War general and two-term president. Recipient of the National Humanities Medal, Chernow won the Pulitzer Prize for his last book, “Washington,” and the National Book Award for his first, “The House of Morgan.” Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted his best-selling “Hamilton” into a musical, which Michelle Obama called “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”
And yet — that shadow. To Woolf, every biographer is “a craftsman, not an artist. . . . The trouble lies with biography itself. It imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.” She argues that only unrestrained imagination can make art. I disagree. Facts are simply the medium, as paint is to the painter. Of course, most painters succeed as artisans, not artists, and so do most biographers.
To rise above craftsmanship, one must work with abundant, varied and complicated facts. Chernow does that, presenting research that bulks Grant to nearly 1,000 pages of narrative. It allows him to write a rich and sensitive portrait of the inner Grant — from reluctant West Point cadet to civilian failure to triumphant general. He exhaustively investigates Grant’s alcoholism and fraught relationships with his family. I admire Chernow’s honesty about contradictory evidence as well as Grant’s mistakes.
We read biography to know a life but also to ratify our conviction that the individual matters. This forces the biographer to be researcher, writer and historian simultaneously. How does the world shape the individual, and the individual the world? To what extent are convictions, judgment and personality merely typical, embedded in a larger context — and where does the individual wriggle free? A biography that succeeds as art combines scholarly and literary virtues. It explains, interprets and carries a reader fully into a human existence. It offers illumination and immersion.
As a historian, Chernow proves somewhat uneven. His research into Grant’s struggles with alcohol would be better if he discussed the scale and intensity of the temperance movement; that would explain contemporaries’ obsession with drink and Grant’s personal shame. Chernow’s account of Grant’s military career, however, works well, particularly in exploring his closest relationships. Most important, the book centers on the story of black liberation, from Grant’s embrace of emancipation as a general to his enforcement of civil rights as president. If African Americans play too passive a role in this telling (freedom did not progress “ineluctably”), Chernow’s emphasis is exactly right, and his account of Grant’s views is revealing.
Every biography is a broken mirror, reflecting the past inexactly. But Chernow shows where a seemingly small distortion obscures something important. In recounting Jay Gould and Jim Fisk’s attempt to corner the gold market in 1869, for example, he states incorrectly that Wall Street quoted the price of gold per ounce. This is no mere technical error. The “Gold Room” wasn’t a commodity market but an exchange between two domestic currencies, both confusingly named “dollar”: the legal-tender paper greenback and the still-circulating gold dollar. The “gold premium,” or price, was the number of greenbacks required to buy $100 in gold coin. That fact is the door to a chamber of bitter controversy. Should money be a substance with intrinsic value — or can government invent it at will and address crippling deflation of a kind unknown to any American today? If Chernow had explained this, readers would know why Grant’s veto of the Inflation Bill probably cost the Republicans the 1874 midterm elections and why the Greenback Party emerged as one of history’s most successful independent political movements.
Chernow shows little interest in the West. He writes that Gen. Philip Sheridan dispatched Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer to the Black Hills in the Great Sioux Reservation in 1874 to find gold, defiling a region sacred to the Lakotas. In fact, Sheridan sent him to scout a site for a fort, as part of a strategy to compensate for the Army’s manpower shortage. Custer did find gold, igniting a rush of squatters. That invasion led to war because, as historian Robert Utley writes, the Black Hills were a critical natural resource bank that sustained Lakota nomadism. Chernow misses the environmental and strategic factors that shaped Lakota national imperatives as well as federal policies.
Strong research, imperfect history — but what about Chernow’s writing? British literary critic David Lodge notes that nonfiction authors’ theft of the novelist’s tools dates back to the 19th-century writer Thomas Carlyle. Telling a story through scenes, the creation of expectations, the techniques of mystery and suspense, not to mention rhythm and lyricism — this belongs in a biography of Tolstoy as much as in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Unfortunately, Chernow makes little use of these tools. His design does not delight with artful structure and delivers no pleasures of expectation, revelation or surprise. He rarely opens a chapter with sentences that hum the themes to come. He does not switch the point of view to allow a secondary character to expand the book’s scope. He stacks up adjectives, cliches and stock phrases. “The quick-witted Grant beat them to the punch and the town fell without a shot,” he writes. With each such sentence, Woolf’s shadow grows darker.
As a novel does, the best biography creates a fully realized world. That requires not just research but selection. During a fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, my colleagues reviewed a chapter of my Cornelius Vanderbilt biography. In a scene that found Vanderbilt on the edge of death, novelist Nathan Englander noted my reference to a meteor that flamed overhead. “You realize you’re connecting Vanderbilt to the universe?” he asked. He was right, but it wasn’t the effect I wanted. I had merely compiled facts, failing to consider their literary implications. I wanted to say that earthy grit saved this unspiritual old sailor, so I took the meteor out. It made me realize how much I had to learn about writing.
In “Samuel Pepys,” biographer Claire Tomalin evokes the moment when her subject first bought a notebook for his famous diary: “When Pepys was in Cornhill on 5 December 1659, the day he saw an apprentice shot through the head by soldiers, the shops had their shutters up against the violence in the streets. On another day before the end of the year he was in Cornhill again, and this time he went into the stationer’s shop at the sign of the Globe, where John Cade sold paper and pens as well as the prints and maps Pepys loved to leaf through; and there he bought himself a paper-covered notebook, too fat to go into his pocket, and carried it home to Axe Yard.”
Without one “likely” or “perhaps,” Tomalin connects the facts she knows to create a sense of a scene that no document describes. She sends active verbs skittering and barking through the shop to bring alive Pepys’s anticipation, the prints ready for fingering, the notebook he feels in his hand. It is vivid, and it is honest. Tomalin shows, in this rare combination of brilliant research, history and literary style, that a biography indeed can be art.
Yet, Woolf herself liked good craftsmanship, which Chernow delivers. He guides us into the character of a famously reticent man, revealing how he could be both a failure and a conqueror, principled yet surprisingly naive.
By Ron Chernow
Penguin Press. 1,074 pp. $40