I realize this infatuation may only be a passing fancy, but I have begun reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. It is a two-volume set, consisting of 552 pages (although I’m reading it on a Kindle which results in never having a true feel for where you are in a book.) In any event, I’ve set out on a journey to plumb this man’s soul. It’s nice to have a long read to look forward to.
Grant wrote these memoirs at the very end of his life, as he was dying of throat cancer. Seems to me a meaningful vantage point from which to ponder one’s place in history. A man of humble beginnings, Grant had enormous successes and enormous failures. Some of these would alter the fate of a nation; others the fate of a people. Some brought him shame and financial ruin.
Mark Twain characterized Grant’s account as “a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece,” a war memoir comparable in stature to Julius Caesar’s. (There’s hyperbole for you, to be expected since Twain was involved in publishing and selling the book.) Fifty years later, holding court underneath her Picasso’s, Gertrude Stein claimed Grant’s book to be one of the greatest written by an American. Walt Whitman said of Grant, “In all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast." (I cannot resist also including this quote from Whitman, just because it makes me smile: "I do not value literature as a profession. I feel about literature what Grant did about war. He hated war. I hate literature.")
Of course not everyone was a fan of the man. Henry James sniffed that Grant’s prose was “hard and dry as sandpaper.” Matthew Arnold held that Grant’s use of English was “without charm and without high breeding.” But let them say what they like. Dying and nearly destitute, Grant clung to life and churned out up to fifty pages a day so that profits from the book might provide for his family. He finished the manuscript and died five days later.
A curious man. I am in love with his voice. It was anti-Victorian, not flowery and verbose but spare, direct, even acerbic. Yet not cynical, at least not by modern standards. The amusement and wit is gentler, forgiving, and always demonstrating a clarity and intelligence that I admire.
|At his best?|
They say Grant had great courage and coolness under fire. It certainly showed during the Battle of Fort Donelson. It was while researching the performance of Gideon Pillow (perhaps the worst general in the Civil War) in that battle that I first ran across Grant’s wry recollections. It was no doubt what set me on a course, six months later, to delve into his memoirs.
My question at the moment: how does an aware, intelligent man of his caliber, a great strategist and imperturbable tactician (unruffled by bolting horses or bullets flying overhead), make such astonishing, bonehead errors of judgment? His presidency was one of the most corrupt on record, and some of the worst excesses of the Reconstruction happened on his watch. He went on to end his life in financial ruin due to lax oversight and further poor judgment. And yet he says this about the Mexican-American War (with which I am in complete agreement):
“I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
I cannot but believe Grant was a moral man. Moral in, I suppose, my complex, rather torturous definition of the term. (You have to see all the complexities, the good and the bad, the dark and the light, and all the murky grey areas in between where things are never clear and people try and fail, and maybe don’t try so hard and fail but have to be forgiven anyway because, in the end, kindness is the only true religion. And with all this, knowing the tragedies and the pettiness and the failures and the sadness, knowing your own failures and the reefs you’ve foundered on, you still most days attempt the right thing, that which will cause the least suffering and most well-being for all. You strive for what your conscience can best live with, because there is, in the end, no other choice. And if you can do all this without bitterness, with even a sense of humor, by god, you’re a saint.)
(I have not often managed to live up to this definition.)
I wish Lincoln had lived to write his autobiography. He could be hysterically funny and I’m sure such a book would be a rollicking good time (not unlike Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography which is a hoot.) I’m also a fan of Robert E Lee and wish he’d written memoirs so I could hear his voice without all the mythologizing and interpreters, though in his writing Lee is invariably such a gentleman and so circumspect that perhaps little of his inner personality might have shown through.
But what is left to posterity, mostly due to a pressing need for cash, is the account of a man who, as a West Point cadet, just wanted to become a math professor and who probably would’ve been happier, when all was said and done, had that happened. But his soul, his demons, his moral center? Does the arc of the universe indeed bend towards justice, kindness, redemption? Ah, that’s why I read. And why I write. To find out.