Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero was written by Michael Korda, a man mostly known for his editing skills, who was born in London, United Kingdom in 1933. Korda comes from a family lineage that absolutely cares for the arts, whether it be art in its literal sense or through film and writing. His father, Vincent, was a well-known Hungarian artist and director with an Academy Award dawning the top of his resume. His brother and uncle were both well-known film producers. When Korda was a child, he spent five years living in the United States (from 1941-1946), which probably had an impact on his future interest with American history. He studied at a private college in Switzerland before transferring to research the academic discipline of history at Magdalen College, Oxford. Korda, exiting college, served in the British Royal Air Force, which had him “doing intelligence work” in Germany.
After his stint in the Royal Air Force, Korda found himself looking for new opportunities. In 1957, he moved to New York City as a research assistant for Sidney Kingsley. Less than a year after his arrival in America, Korda worked his way up the ladder at Simon & Schuster’s editing firm. He shocked the world of freelance and bureaucratic editing alike by refusing to stick to a specific area of expertise or interest. From the very beginning, Korda demonstrated his ability to edit both fiction and non-fiction with an equal interest in both ‘fields’.
According to his personal memoir, he enjoyed editing books from mathematics and philosophy to anthropology and scientific history and everything in between. He dabbled in everything history: from French revisionism to political memoirs to American military history; and although he is best known for his editing abilities, Korda has proven himself to be a well-versed writer as well. He wrote freelance articles for Glamour magazine throughout the sixties and seventies, and has written several books spanning different subjects throughout his active career.
The “history” aspects of his historical – mostly biographical – writing began in the early 2000s, in which he focused on the ‘great men’ of military prowess. From Dwight D. Eisenhower to Robert E. Lee, Korda published several military-based biographical works that centered around how the world’s militaries flourish and fail. In recent years, Korda has faded into a private life with his second wife Margaret Mogford; but he hasn’t lost that passion for writing and editing that got his name on the charts. He remains an Editor-in-Chief for Simon & Schuster at 84 years of age; and he has written several pieces on his personal hobbies, such as fox hunting.
Korda’s Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, is a part of a biographical series labeled Eminent Lives, a series that also dives into the lives and works of ‘great men’ such as Alexander the Great, George Washington, and Alexis de Tocqueville. When reading this edition to the series, one would easily be deterred from finishing the rather short read due to the longwinded excerpts provided by the author. The utter lack of semicolons and the over-usage of commas and hyphens showcases a sense of rambling to reach a point that never seems to come. It would be dishonest to claim that Korda’s sentence structure and verbiage was too academic or too flowery to be put into practical use; but it does feel as if the overall writing style was pushed into a specific format that the Eminent Lives title was trying to keep similar throughout the biographical series.
The main problem with Korda’s Ulysses S. Grant would be its lack of validity. Any reader should understand the capitalistic limitations to printing out an abundance of sources throughout any historical work. It is unfathomable to print hundreds upon hundreds of research-based references due to the length of books and the cost of printing in many cases; and that is why many history students have to settle for the dreaded “selected” annotated bibliographies. With many situations, the “selected” annotated bibliographies are enough to kick research and reference into the right direction.
This is not the case for Korda’s book. Less than two full pages are included in the very back of the book for a miniscule, lack-lustered “Notes” section, and there is not a single footnote or endnote in the entire work. What very little we are presented even feels like a slap in the face, as the notes on his sources begins with a statement that states, “the list is too long to include in full”. This really harms the structural integrity of the work as a whole, as it specifically limits the ways readers can learn more from the overall experience of completing this already flawed-in-foundation book.
It honestly feels as if Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero is nothing more than a ‘beginner’s biography’ on the subject, as it completes itself at less than 160 pages. From the opening pages, it seems that Korda was attempting to string some relative significance between the reasons to care about Grant’s life and presidency by comparing it to a topical situation that occurred in 2003, around the same time when the book was published. In 2003, pop singer Beyoncé Knowles put on a Fourth of July concert at Grant’s tomb, putting on a display of “raucous, lascivious” show that came off as a disgrace to the Ulysses S. Grant Monument Association.
Although the book is short, it can be incredibly vivid at times. Korda does an excellent job at depicting the life of a man who began as the son of an Ohioan tanner. He describes the “embarrassment” of his early life, on how he was soft-spoken, shy, awkward, and addictive. Much like other American ‘great men’ (such as Theodore Roosevelt or Richard Nixon), a rather sickly and otherwise unimportant beginning seemed to prop Ulysses Grant up to be, truly, an “Unlikely Hero”. This is about as clever as the book gets, as it relates back to the subtitle of the project.
This book is literally a biography. From a military perspective, it describes several of the battles that Ulysses S. Grant commanded from the beginning of his militaristic career up until the end. The virtues that American general “needs to have” are the primary focus of Korda’s work, and his biases are fairly clear as to how he feels about Grant’s influences on the American military. As he states in the book, he believes that America’s greatest general would be, without a question, Ulysses S. Grant. Although this is a popular belief, he does little to identify the factors that would compare or contrast General/President Grant to other American ‘heroes’.
The book essentially produces a short-winded militaristic perspective of Grant’s lifestyle and strategic movements in a way that doesn’t compare or contrast to any stable constant. Korda claims that America has “fortunately enough” not created a militaristic dictator to the same figure as Napoleon or Alexander the Great – to which one could identify the exact reasons as to why Korda would love an “unlikely hero” such as Grant.
It even appears as if the reviews on the book itself are more enlightening than the project Korda produced. Steven Englund, author of Napoleon: A Political Life, summarizes the project through his own expertise, describing Grant as “America’s very own anti-Napoleon: a general who hated war, a politician who served without charisma” and that Korda’s retelling was “simple, clear, and deeply original”. I personally believe that the “simple” aspect of Englund’s review summarizes the entire book. Simple does not always equate to being bad, but it does leave more to desire when presented in this format.
I would not recommend this book to any of my colleagues in the history profession, as there are literally thousands of better resources, both primary and secondary, to look through. In what very little Korda gave us to work with in his terribly short reference section, it appears that any of the very few books deemed important enough to cite would be better reads with better outlets that would allow one to find more on the subject. I do not personally blame Korda for this problem, as he was most likely shoehorned into the Eminent Lives series in a way that forced him to be more cookie-cutter than the average writer out there. If I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be someone who wouldn’t be as well-versed with the life of Ulysses S. Grant. As it happens to be a ‘beginner’s biography’, it might strike a chord with someone trying to enter the field. However, with such few references to look into, it might as well be a dead-end to even a beginner’s research.