Pulitzer Prize-winning Biographer Ron Chernow’s book "Hamilton" spurred Lin-Manuel Miranda to write a musical based on the book and the life of Alexander Hamilton. "Hamilton" captured the public conscious unlike any musical in recent memory. Now, Chernow has written a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant simply called "Grant." Chernow joined Boston Public Radio Wednesday to talk about his new book, the influence of Grant, and how Lin Manuel Miranda approached him about "Hamilton." Below are some highlights from that conversation.
Why did you decide Ulysses S. Grant for the subject of this book?
There is a contrarian streak in my nature. When I wrote about Alexander Hamilton, he was quite demonized at that time and I felt that he had been done in by his adversaries. I wrote the Grant book in a similar spirit. There were really three leading myths that I wanted to retire. One: this idea that he was this hopeless drunkard who stumbled through the civil war in an alcoholic haze. Two: that he was this crude and brutal butcher as a general. Three: that he was a failed president and that the entire presidency was all about corruption and cronyism.
Why does our country not recognize Grant more for his many accomplishments as a president?
What happened during the civil war and Reconstruction — there was a school of Southern historians that were called the Lost Cause School, and they retrospectively rewrote the history of the Civil war and Reconstruction. They said that the Civil War was not really about slavery, it was about states' rights. They said that Reconstruction was a complete fiasco of corrupt carpet bag politicians and illiterate and incompetent black legislators. In fact, most historians consider Reconstruction a glorious period in which we tried to create a biracial society.
Did Grant just get lucky during the many battles of the Civil War, or was he actually a great general?
The Confederate historians always said, of course, Grant had access to manpower and manufacturing in the North that was so much greater than the South. If you look at the war in Virginia before Grant in 1864 finally faces off against Lee, there had been six consecutive Union generals who had not been able to defeat Robert E. Lee with the same Northern population, with the same Northern manufacturing power. Grant not only defeats him, but captures his army.
Do you feel like you actually know Grant after writing this book?
By the time I sit down and write about someone, I have to feel that if this person walked into the room right now, I would know how he walked, talked, looked and sounded. After a while you know the person so well you can almost predict what they will do or say in a given situation.
How did you and Lin-Manuel Miranda meet?
I live in Brooklyn Heights in New York, and one Sunday afternoon I was out walking I ran into a friend whose daughter went to Wesleyan with Lin, and it was this life changing conversation. He said, "This hip-hop artist Lin-Manuel Miranda has read your Hamilton book, he fell in love with it." He put me in touch with Lin. I went to see Lin, who was still staring in his first show, "In The Heights." I went backstage and Lin told me while he was reading my Hamilton book on vacation in Mexico, hip-hop songs started rising off the page. Then he said to me, "Hamilton’s life was a classic hip-hop narrative." I was thinking to myself, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Lin picked up on the fact that he had a world class ignoramus about hip-hop on his hands. I said to him, "Can hip-hop be the vehicle for telling this story?" And he said, "Ron I’m going to educate you in hip-hop."
What was your first reaction to hearing "Hamilton"?
[Lin-Manuel Miranda] came up to my house and he sang the opening number, which is four minutes long, and when he finished he said, "What do you think?" I said, "That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. You’ve compressed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song." What I didn’t say to him was, Pal, either you write very tight, or I write very long.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Click on the audio player above to hear Ron Chernow's interview in its entirety.