Saturday, December 29, 2012

`His Prose Is Nonpareil in American Literature'

For years I’ve relied on a falling-apart paperback of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, so on Thursday when I found the Library of America edition of Grant’s Memoirs and selected letters in a bookshop in Fredericksburg, Va., and the price was ten dollars, I grabbed it. Earlier in the day in the battlefield gift shop, I’d picked up a postcard image of Grant, an engraving based on this wartime photograph of the general. I wrote of my good fortune to Helen Pinkerton, who replied: 

“The LOA edition of Grant's Memoirs is one of my all-time favorite books. His prose is nonpareil in American literature. I think the War was won, essentially, the day he took over command of the Armies [March 2, 1864]. Not only did he know `how to fight,’ he `fought,’ as Lincoln said.” 

Lincoln’s ringing endorsement of Grant after the Battle of Shiloh is recounted by Alexander McClure, an editor, Republican politician from Pennsylvania and biographer of the president: “[Lincoln] then gathered himself up in his chair and said in a tone of earnestness that I shall never forget: 'I can't spare this man; he fights.’” Grant’s life, like Lincoln’s, embodies the American Dream – that a man can reinvent himself; poverty and scant education are not a straitjacket; social class is no reason for social paralysis; hard work, discipline, self-sacrifice and determination are rewarded. Grant writes of his father, Jesse R. Grant, a farmer and tanner born in 1794 in Pennsylvania, a man virtually without schooling: 

“…his thirst for education was intense. He learned rapidly, and was a constant reader up to the day of his death in his eightieth year. Books were scarce in the Western Reserve during his youth, but he read every book he could borrow in the neighborhood where he lived. This scarcity gave him the early habit of studying everything he read, so that when he got through with a book, he knew everything in it. The habit continued through life….He made himself an excellent English scholar.”

Grant’s prose is never less than crystalline. From years of writing military dispatches, memoranda and letters, Grant had learned concision and precision, and was impatient with vagueness, padding, evasiveness and self-display. When describing his father, a man he deeply admired, Grant is not bombastic. He’s reporting the facts. His tone is nearly clinical, yet suffused with filial devotion. He might, of course, have been writing about himself. 

Clearly, the image of Grant as a backwoods drunken lout is purest myth, confabulated by political adversaries. Again like Lincoln, he was never polished, fitted with a veneer of Eastern sophistication. He was born and raised on the American frontier. He was shrewd, observant, skeptical and deeply intelligent, though not an exceptional president. In a passage from Chapter LXX of the Memoirs, Grants contrasts Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Grant writes, without bitterness but with clinical insight: 

“They were the very opposite of each other in almost every particular, except that each possessed great ability. Mr. Lincoln gained influence over men by making them feel that it was a pleasure to serve him. He preferred yielding his own wish to gratify others, rather than to insist upon having his own way. It distressed him to disappoint others. In matters of public duty, however, he had what he wished, but in the least offensive way. Mr. Stanton never questioned his own authority to command, unless resisted. He cared nothing for the feelings of others. In fact it seemed to be pleasanter to him to disappoint than to gratify.” 

These are not the words of a bumpkin, thug or political hack. Remember, too, Grant was dying of throat cancer as he was writing them. His gift for narrative and reflection kept him alive in the little house at Mount McGregor, N.Y., a place I visited several times a year when living nearby in Saratoga Springs. Read the passage in Chapter LI of the Memoirs describing, after the Union defeat at Battle of the Wilderness, how the Signal Corps put up telegraph lines even at the fighting raged. Or the way he tactfully but fatally diagnoses the general largely responsible for the Union disaster at Fredericksburg: 

“General Burnside was an officer who was generally liked and respected. He was not, however, fitted to command an army. No one knew this better than himself. He always admitted his blunders, and extenuated those of officers under him beyond what they were entitled to. It was hardly his fault that he was ever assigned to a separate command.” 

In 1904, when Henry James returned to the United States for the first time in twenty years, among the places he visited was Grant’s Tomb in Morningside Heights, overlooking the Hudson River. Grant died in 1885, and his memorial was completed in time for the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth, on April 27, 1897. In The American Scene, James judges the tomb a fittingly democratic monument, in contrast to Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides: 

“The tabernacle of Grant's ashes stands there by the pleasure-drive, unguarded and unenclosed, the feature of the prospect and the property of the people, as open as an hotel or a railway-station to any coming and going, and as dedicated to the public use as builded things in America (when not mere closed churches) only can be.”

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