Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero

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Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero

By Michael Korda
HarperCollins, 2004
176 pp. $19.95

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.

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