Not surprisingly, Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Chernow is calling on the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State as he conducts extensive research for a forthcoming book.
The bestselling biographer's recent visit to the university is part of two-and-a-half year effort to explore Grant's life in a new light. He previously has written about such other historical giants as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller.
As Chernow recalled, the idea for a focus on Grant came to him in 2010, shortly after finishing the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington biography. In seeking a new project, he said he came to feel Grant was among only a few major American figures whose historical stature is comparable to that of the first president.
As he reasoned, both men had been war heroes and presidents in the two most defining eras in American history, the Revolutionary and Civil wars, respectively.
Between what Chernow termed a "strong and often overbearing father" and "equally difficult father-in-law," Grant and his wife, Julia, faced the difficulty of feuding families, a fact often overlooked by other biographers.
"In a way, the Civil War already was being fought out before 1861 in the Grant family between the Yankee family from Ohio and the Southern family from Missouri," Chernow said.
Explaining his philosophy of biography, the author said, "I try to put at the center of the book a psychological portrait of the character, and I also try to synthesize both the public and the private lives. The material at the Grant Library is invaluable. It will allow me to present a rounded portrait of this person that I hope will make him seem very real on the page."
Prior to visiting MSU, Chernow immersed himself in secondary-source research to gain a broad background to his subject. Even when taking a three-month hiatus following ankle surgery, he read the Civil War trilogies of Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton, followed by nearly eighty books about Grant, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
After all that, he dedicated 2013 to carefully perusing all 32 volumes of the "The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant" found in the MSU repository.
During his recent time on the MSU campus, Chernow said he successfully worked his way through the second series of unpublished Grant material. Since the 32 published volumes represent only 20 percent of materials in the Grant Library, he said having access to the unpublished material gave him a wealth of new information.
"I feel lucky to be the beneficiary of [former library executive director John Y.] Simon's work," he said, "And the staff at the Grant Library rolled out the red carpet for me.
"The Grant Library is an absolute jewel; I'm going to be back many times," he added.
MSU historian John Marszalek, the Grant Library's executive director, expressed great admiration for Chernow's previous work and his extensive planning and lead-up work for the new Grant biography.
"Ron Chernow is one of the nation's leading biographers, and his praise of our Grant collection is most meaningful," Marszalek said. "I can't wait to read his completed book."
For more about the Grant Library and collections, visit http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/usgrantcollection.
Information about Mississippi State University may be found at www.msstate.edu.