Wednesday, July 28, 2021

'A Man of Sensitivity and Cultivation'

“Readers discover quickly that [Ulysses] Grant uses unornamented language as if he knows well that it will heighten the power of the awful tale he has to tell of brother fighting brother. His sentences are short, startlingly short for that day, and their variety shows the deftness of a wordsmith.” 

For years I have unsuccessfully lobbied for a book ranking high among American autobiographies, up there with The Soldier’s Story, Speak, Memory, and Witness -- all written in the immediate postwar era, the 1950s, when America was supposedly a cultural desert. To my knowledge, I’ve convinced no one to read Grant’s Personal Memoirs (1885-86). Perhaps his unearned reputation as a drunken lout explains my failure. A genius as a general, Grant was middling as president and guilty by association with corruption in his administration. Maybe Americans truly no longer care to learn their history. Or they wish only to learn enough to get pissed off over something they know little about.


I’ve found an ally in Henry F. Graff (1921-2020), a longtime historian at Columbia University who specialized in the American presidency. The passage quoted above comes from his essay “Presidents as Penmen” (From Parnassus: Essays in Honor of Jacques Barzun, 1976), in which he surveys presidential writing, reserving highest praise, as did Barzun, for Lincoln. His verdicts are tart. Most presidential addresses, he writes, “have not displayed much literary imagination.” Grover Cleveland’s speeches were “flat and motionless, and if they conveyed any feeling at all it was surely one of ennui, if not of insincerity.” Benjamin Harrison “held his audience at arm’s length, as if in imitation of Cleveland.” One wonders what Graff made of more recent White House occupants, a rather dreary lineup.


Graff, however, notes that some presidents redeemed themselves after leaving office by writing “personal memoirs and autobiographical reflections,” though he dismisses the ghost-written accounts published under the names of Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson. Then he comes to Grant:


“The best autobiographical writing by a President was done by Ulysses S. Grant. Too long has Grant lived in American minds only as a heavy drinker and cigar addict whose seeming callousness toward human life, including especially the lives of his own troops, once converted the road to Richmond into a charnel house.”     


Some readers will be surprised when Graff describes Grant, rightly, as “a man of sensitivity and cultivation,” and says that the Personal Memoirs are “so full of good writing that a student of Grant’s life must conclude that like all accomplished literary craftsmen Grant acquired his skill, hitherto unrevealed, through the force of model and example.” Grant’s sentences, Graff tells us, “flow limpidly and logically,” which sounds like a prose ideal.


Last Friday was the 136th anniversary of Grant’s death, which effectively coincided with his completion of the Personal Memoirs manuscript. Readers curious about an American literary and historical masterwork that remains hidden in plain sight might take the opportunity to read it. I use the Library of America edition. Here is a sample of Grant’s prose, describing his meeting at Appomattox Courthouse with Gen. Robert E. Lee, with whom he had served during the Mexican War:


“What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”


Richard Zuelch said...

I have the Penguin Classics edition, published in 1999, with an introduction and notes by the well-known historian, James M. McPherson. I hand-wrote these quotations about the book near and on the title page:

". . .universally regarded as the greatest military memoirs since Caesar's 'Commentaries,' and among the genuine masterpieces of American literature." - John Steele Gordon, Commentary Magazine (10/27/09)

"Best book ever written by an American politician." - Kevin D. Williamson, on Twitter (7/3/15)

". . .the power, beauty, and honesty of these memoirs." - Jay Nordlinger, on Twitter (1/7/16)

". . .the greatest military memoir in the English language, and the finest book published by any U. S. president." - George F. Will, National Review Online (11/4/17)

That sums it up pretty well.

Incidentally, along with Lincoln and Grant, Theodore Roosevelt is usually regarded as one of our most literate presidents. He authored many books - including, I understand, a volume of literary criticism, which I've never seen, but would love to.

Busyantine said...

Well Patrick, you've convinced this reader to download a copy of Grant's Memoirs (from Project Gutenberg)and put it on my Kobo ereader.
I see that he is descended from the Grant family who left Dorchester, England in the 1630s. Dorchester is some 30 miles south of where I live; the current inhabitants show no obvious signs of a restless urge to emigrate, the pioneering spirit of Charles the First's reign has long gone.

rgfrim said...

You sell us short. The map teams withGrant lovers. One of my favorite conversational bon mots is to point out why no museum features Grant’s horse in contrast to the worshipfully taxidermed “ Traveler” of Lee. Why? Because most of brave general’s horses were shot out from under him in the course of battles in which, unlike Lee, Grant participated close up. Ron Chernow’s recent biography has done much to heal Grant’s reputation. And the “Personal Memoirs”, which I read while serving in the Army, endure. For another perspective I strongly recommend a rereading of James Thurber’s “ If Grant Was Drunk at Appomattox”. Sample, Grant to Lee: “ I know who you are! You’re Robert Browning, the poet!”

huisache said...

I read it on the recommendation of a prof at UT-Austin when I was in grad school forty years ago. He said it was the best book ever written by an American president. He was right. Grant had the misfortune of following the worst president in the country's history and lived with a Congress struggling with the unintended consequences of victory. That Mark Twain was a friend and fan of his says much about the man as a man.

Thomas Parker said...

Edmund Wilson (in Patriotic Gore) was great admirer of both Grant's and Sherman's memoirs.

James said...

You have convinced me as well, to place these memoirs on my tbr list. I had heard that Grant was worth reading and you have provided the evidence. As an admirer of Barzun I'm also going to pursue the essay collection you reference. Thanks!

Tim Guirl said...

I read Grant's extraordinary Personal Memoirs about a decade ago. If memory serves, the impetus may have been something you wrote about Grant's writing on you blog. Or perhaps it was Stephen Pentz over at "First Known When Lost".

Faze said...

May I dissent? Grant gives us a shallow, text book view of the war. You wouldn't think you were hearing the voice of a man approaching death, who'd sent tens of thousands of his fellow men to their own deaths. He never reflects on the moral side of this mass slaughter. Thank goodness for Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane.