Monday, January 17, 2011

`I Am a Verb Instead of a Personal Pronoun'

“I said I had been adding to my book and to my coffin. I presume every strain of the mind or body is one more nail in the coffin.”

The writer is Ulysses S. Grant in the summer of 1885, at his cottage in Mount McGregor, N.Y., in the foothills of the Adirondacks. The previous October he had been diagnosed with throat cancer by Dr. John Hancock Douglas, who attended the former president until his death on July 23, 1885. In the final stages of the disease Grant was unable to speak and communicated with his doctor by handwritten note.

The Library of America, along with Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant and a selection of letters, includes ten pages of these notes to Douglas, who preserved them. Most are brief, one or two sentences, describing symptoms, pain, medication, life, writing and death. Grant is struggling to complete his Personal Memoirs. His painkilling regimen is harrowing – cocaine, morphine, laudanum, sometimes alcohol. Despite his reputation for hard drinking Grant was no junky or lush. He writes like a solider – stoic but not foolishly so. On June 26 he writes:

“I do not feel the slightest desire to take morphine now. In fact when I do take it it is not from craving, but merely from a knowledge of the relief it gives. If I should go without it all night I would become restless I know, partly from the loss of it, and partly from the continuous pain I would have to endure.”

And this, on July 7:

“I feel very badly probably because of a cross fire between opium and laudanum. If relieved of that I half hope to feel better.

“I feel as if I cannot endure it any longer. The alcoholic stimulants must absolutely be given up.”

The careful eloquence in the midst of pain, the resignation in the face of imminent death, reminds me of Chekhov. The last note, written in his final three days, is remarkable as literature and as a human document:

“I do not sleep though I sometimes dose off a little. If up I am talked to and in my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

I happened to read Grant’s final notes the same day I was rereading some of Melville’s poems, including “Lone Founts” from Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse. This was the last book Melville published during his lifetime, in 1891, the year of his death. It came out in a limited edition of twenty-five copies and was dedicated to the painter Elihu Vedder, whose portrait of Jane Jackson had inspired Melville’s “`Formerly a Slave'” in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). Here is “Lone Founts”:

“Though fast youth's glorious fable flies,
View not the world with worldling's eyes;
Nor turn with weather of the time.
Foreclose the coming of surprise:
Stand where Posterity shall stand;
Stand where the Ancients stood before,
And, dipping in lone founts thy hand,
Drink of the never-varying lore:
Wise once, and wise thence evermore.”

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