February 01, 2016

Small thoughts on Grant

I do most of my non-chess reading over meals at home. I live alone, so I don't have to worry about my spouse or significant other being neglected while I read at table there. Be assured that if I did have a guest or mate or someone of that sort around, I wouldn't be reading like that with him/her/them at the table with me. Or at worst, I'd be reading aloud for their benefit.

That's precisely what's done at monasteries that I've been to during meals. Traditional practice in Orthodox monasteries (at least of the coenobitic variety), as far as I'm aware, is that meals are taken communally in silence, the only voice heard being that of a monk chosen to read aloud from a selection of spiritual commentary from the Fathers. When I was last at St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY, for example, the reading was from a book by St. Nektarios himself--I was only dimly aware of its subject, unfortunately, because the reading was in Greek and my Greek wasn't good enough to follow along. I find this a very salutary use of mealtime. If I had a wife and children, I might be moved to do something like this for them sometimes.

But as things are, I read to and for myself. Lately, I've worked through Ulysses Grant's memoir and, following immediately thereafter, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I suppose I could have read them a little more profitably in chronological order, but this is the way it worked out. I'd been keen on reading Grant for some time, more so than on reading Douglass. The latter turned out to be a very quick read in comparison--Grant's writing is fairly dense.

I here refer to the 1999 Penguin Classics edition of the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant.

(By the way, I find the literary style that was apparently in vogue in late 19th-century America so appealing that I feel quite at ease adopting its cadences and manner. It's really amazingly agreeable to me. You can see this happen to me sometimes even in such a simple thing as that un-modern phrasing "I here refer...".)

Grant and I have some things in common. We're both Midwesterners, for one thing, he having been born in Ohio and I in Illinois (where he later lived as well). I see also that he had a tough time making anything of himself in early adulthood, having had a couple of attempts at going into business for himself fail in the 1850s. It took me longer than it should have to get my own career going, largely because of my own faults, so I can sympathize with such a life.

Grant is of course a military man, but not without wit and a subtle humor. See this rather biting comment on some of his fellow officers in the period of the war with Mexico, from the opening paragraph of chapter 3, for example:
It did seem to me, in my early army days, that too many of the older officers, when they came to command posts, made it a study to think what orders they could publish to annoy their subordinates and render them uncomfortable. I noticed, however, a few years later, when the Mexican war broke out, that most of this class of officers discovered they were possessed of disabilities which entirely incapacitated them for active field service. They had the moral courage to proclaim it, too. They were right; but they did not always give their disease the right name.

This is not characteristic of most of the memoir, though--Grant usually describes most everything in a very to-the-point manner with a minimum of editorialization. At least we can say that he has what in a modern American writer would be considered an almost pathological reluctance to advertise himself and his own role in the events in question. It's refreshing to read someone with such a sense of self-restraint.

Moments at which Grant describes contemporary protocol between American officers are of interest, such as his relation of the surrender negotiations at Fort Donelson (including but not limited to the famous 'unconditional surrender' missive) and of course the climactic encounter between him and General Lee at Appomattox, but also, along the way, several other interactions between him and the Confederate or Mexican commanders opposite him. I say they are of interest not only because of the fame of the historic occasions involved, but also because they show a kind of all-American chivalry or sense of honor, not so prettified or ritualized as would have been the case in a meeting between European aristocratic army officers of that or previous eras--though Grant commented rather ruefully on his own dressed-down condition compared to General Lee, the quintessential Southern gentleman, at Appomattox Court House--yet seemingly naturally assumed; courtesy without undue pretension, I guess, is a good way to describe it.

Grant has interesting comments as well on the quality of American vis-a-vis European soldiery of the time. In his view, the American Civil War produced a type of American soldier that was superior on a moral level to most European infantrymen, because the American soldier was literate and understood what he was fighting for. He makes mention of this sort of thing at a couple of different points in the narrative--I forget exactly where the first of these is found--I want to say somewhere during his account of the operations around Chattanooga in 1863-64. The second is toward the very end of the book, as part of his summation of the whole Civil War.

I am not quite sure whether Grant's views would have been quite accurate concerning the typical European soldier of the second half of the nineteenth century. It would be interesting to look at, say, a French or Prussian infantryman's diary from the Sedan campaign to see if those men might not have been more invested in their causes than Grant seems ready to give them credit for. Of course, French or Prussian peasants being relatively freer than Russian ones of the time, one might expect a somewhat greater level of reflection from the rank-and-file men. I note that Grant does not extend his comments to apply to the European officer classes. His point was to contrast the bulk of the army in the two cases, European versus American. Presumably the gulf in quality and morale between the officer classes of the two continents would not have been as wide.

I wish he had written something about his time as President as well. But maybe he would have viewed that as too self-aggrandizing, or he just didn't have the time to do so before he succumbed to his ailments.

I've written long enough on this--and it's so paltry--but it's getting very late, so it's time to sleep. Douglass will have to wait. Good night.

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