Wednesday, May 13, 2015

`Vigorous and Terse, with Little of Ornament'

Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant (1897) is the best book written by a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor I have ever read. Capt. Porter was serving as Chief of Ordnance for the Army of the Cumberland on Sept. 20, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga. The citation accompanying the award, presented in 1902, reads: “While acting as a volunteer aide, at a critical moment when the lines were broken, rallied enough fugitives to hold the ground under heavy fire long enough to effect the escape of wagon trains and batteries.” I hope someone writes a detailed biography of Porter, who served for five years, during and after the war, as Grant’s aide. Like his boss and hero, Porter was a tough-minded man of the world and a first-class writer, an observer of world-historical events who fashioned an articulate account of what he witnessed.

In his first chapter, Porter devotes almost three pages to Grant’s appearance. They read as though written by a less hysterical Dickens: “His mouth, like Washington’s, was of the letter-box shape, the contact of the lips forming a nearly horizontal line. This feature was of a pattern in striking contrast with that of Napoleon, who had a bow mouth, which looked as if it had been modeled after a front view of his cocked hat.” Here’s what Porter says when he shifts attention from appearance to manner:

“He was civil to all who came in contact with him, and never attempted to snub any one, or treat anybody with less consideration on account of his inferiority in rank. With him there was none of the puppyism so often bred by power, and none of the dogmatism which Samuel Johnson characterized as puppyism grown to maturity.”

I haven’t located the reference to “puppyism” in Johnson, but here are the OED definitions: “impertinence; conceit; affectation” and “youthful naivety, inexperience.” Here are some of Porter’s observations on Grant’s prose, from Chapter XVI of Campaigning with Grant:

“In writing his style was vigorous and terse, with little of ornament; its most conspicuous characteristic was perspicuity.”

“His adjectives were few and well chosen. No document which ever came from his hands was in the least degree pretentious. He never laid claim to any knowledge he did not possess, and seemed to feel, with Addison, that `pedantry in learning is like hypocrisy in religion—a form of knowledge without the power of it.’”

“He rarely indulged in metaphor, but when he did employ a figure of speech it was always expressive and graphic, as when he spoke of the commander at Bermuda Hundred being `in a bottle strongly corked,’ or referred to our armies at one time moving `like horses in a balky team, no two ever pulling together.’”

“His style inclined to the epigrammatic without his being aware of it. There was scarcely a document written by him from which brief sentences could not be selected fit to be set in mottos or placed upon transparencies.”

Porter cites as examples of Grant’s verbal pithiness “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” and “The best means of securing the repeal of an obnoxious law is its vigorous enforcement.” If style is character, Grant is the most stylish of writers and men.

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