In Adam Gopnik’s review of Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Gopnik writes that Chernow’s aim is “to rehabilitate Grant as a politician and as President” — which is a potentially troubling way to put it, given that rehabilitating Grant’s reputation and place in history has been an object of scholarly interest since 2002 (at the very least), including an extended period of time in 2010 where Grant’s autobiography was live-blogged by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Surely Grant’s reputation is ‘there.’ (And, if not, why not?)
There is another element at work in Gopnik’s review — that the idea of a permanently debased America as perceived by Henry Adams is one worth combatting, for one — but that doesn’t excuse the fact that there seems to be a small thread of something resembling class reinforcement being woven here — that the rehabilitation of Grant didn’t matter because it had been happening for 15 years, nor because Ta-Nehisi Coates had been more or less championing it, but because Ron Chernow wrote a book about it and a writer for The New Yorker decided to write a review of that book for The New Yorker.
That’s not a claim I feel entirely comfortable making, as I believe in The New Yorker as an institution, Chernow as a popular historian, and the possibility for upward mobility in the United States — regardless of what the data says. My bias also tends to lean towards the optimistic idea that Americans can be expected to do well when confronted with a challenge rooted in class.
Nevertheless, it’s something that caught my eye.