“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.”