". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Grant and Twain

Subtitled, of course, because all non-fiction subtitles include these key words now: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America. Which friendship did not change America, but certainly had an influence on the fortunes of both men involved, and their families. By Mark Perry.

I stayed up way too late reading this book last night, and I'm still not finished. The book is fascinating, and deceptively longer than it appears.

It's also a bit of an odd read, since the author works so very hard to establish his new! individual! brilliant! insights about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its composition, that no one's ever thought of before, and which depend upon a certain twistyness in the description of the relationship between the two men.

I'm not declaring Perry's wrong in his new individual brilliant insights, but maybe, they are not all that brilliant? Or not all that important? Or even a solution to the eternal mystery that is Huckleberry Finn?

The book is filled with period description and detail, gracefully provided to the reader. Both men are brilliant, fascinating people. Until recently I knew nothing about Grant the man, or Grant the general, for that matter. Perry's book is a perfect introduction to Grant's Memoirs, since this book is about how he came to write his Memoirs, the process of that writing, and the publication thereof -- which Twain snatched for his company at the very moment of the signing of the contract with a different publisher. Any writer and historian will consider long and deeply that Grant wrote both volumes while dying of a very painful throat cancer, in the face of financial destitution, due to the failure his son's bank, and keenly feeling the shame of that in his sense of honor. Writing his Memoirs provided Grant comfort on all fronts, particularly as he was assured their publication would ensure a comfortable financial future for his family, which it did do.

The author of the Grant volume in the American Presidents series drew greatly on this book. I presume though, from a get-acquainted first pass through The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, that this author and Perry both drew those parts from Grant himself.

It's too bad that the Forge / Tor edition of Grant's Memoirs could publish only Grant's Civil War volume. (I'm reading The Modern Library War Series edition.) Anyone who wants to understand the history of the U.S. will need Grant's recollections of that far too little known and considered event in national history we call the Mexican - American War. But most of us know nothing about it, other than it was the training and proving ground for so many of the officers and commanders on both sides of the Civil War conflict. Maybe many nationalists don't like that in this volume Grant clearly calls it an unjust war pushed upon Mexico by the U.S. for reason of territory grab -- this was Manifest Destiny time -- and that this was criminal. However, he followed orders and did his best, because that is what the army and its officers do.

This is exactly what he continued to do as Commander in Chief of the Union armies, under Lincoln, and why he continued to follow Lincoln's orders of Reconstruction -- meaning the full integration of the emancipated population into the national body politic, when POTUS himself. Those were Lincoln's orders and he continued to believe himself bound to fulfill those orders. He also believed, as he believed Lincoln did, that this was the only way to heal the nation.

Alas, that even still, today, there are so many who continue to fight with every claw and fang they can muster to make it not be so.

The 1840's were an interesting period in the U.S. I first began thinking of them while doing my Samuel Ward (who ended his extremely long and varied and full life known as "King of the Lobby") project in the NYPL Humanities Papers and Mss. archives.

Grant's Memoirs are instructive as history, and as a model of historical writing. Perry's Grant and Twain is instructive in the process of writing history. Any historian needs all three parts as the tool kit for successful historical work: 1) knowledge of the material -- research and / or recollection, as in Grant's case; 2) possession of a method, a process; 3) capacity to write clearly to communicate what the historian learned / knows. Perry's book shows us Grant actively wielding all three parts of that tool kit.


K. said...

Check out Gore Vidal's essays on Grant and the memoirs. It's been a while since I've read them, but I recall them as being quite good. They're collected in United States: Essays 1952-1992. Also, Shelby Foote's account of the Vicksburg campaign (in his Civil War trilogy) leaves little doubt as to Grant's military skills. Sherman always maintained that Grant was the Civil War's best general because he had to take the offensive, which is an order of magnitude more difficult than fighting defensively. Thanks for the review; I'll look for this one.

Frank Partisan said...

Very interesting post. Start writing the screenplay.

K. said...

I read the prologue this afternoon and leafed through the rest of the book. I'm going to get it -- I need some nonfiction.

Foxessa said...

I've read Edmund Wilson on Grant's Memoirs, in his own marvelous book on Civil War writing, Patriotic Gore, though I haven't read Vidal.

In order to win battles and wars you have to fight offensively. Defensive keeps you penned in, and you become progressively more vulnerable, if your defense doesn't get the offensive to give up the siege fairly soon.

Lee's lost the opportunity to go offensive permantly, if I have this right, at Gettysburg. He essentially lost the war there.


Foxessa said...

I don't like Foote much; he's such a damned Reb.


Foxessa said...

One of my best friends has decided to get the book for her father's birthday next week! He's a retired history professor.

So I've sold two copies of Perry's book this week.

Love, C.

K. said...

Lee also tried to take the offensive in 1862 at Antietam. The incredibly bloody battle -- even by Civil War standards -- was a tactical draw but a strategic defeat for Lee. Of course, McClellan did not take advantage of his position to follow up.

BTW, if you ever get a chance to visit Antietam, don't pass on it. It's really off the beaten path, and so not touristy like Gettysburg. One of the most haunted places I've ever been. On weekdays, at least, you can find yourself alone on parts of the battlefield.

K. said...

Southerner or not, Foote is almost as pro-Grant as Bruce Catton.

K. said...

Apologies for harping on Foote. He's important precisely because he's a Southerner who recognized Grant's ability. Going to school in the South, we were taught that Grant was an incompetent who fought dishonorably and only won because of overwhelming numbers. (Vicksburg was conveniently skirted past.) Anyone who averred otherwise was a Yankee. Foote gave the lie to all of that.

Foxessa said...

But that's not the same thing as accepting that the South is responsible for the Civil War, and why it was responsible for the Civil War. Foote does not, and Caton, it seemed to me -- though it's been decades since I read him -- focuses on the battles, not the causes and their effects.

Foote also propagates the lying propaganda of Reconstruction.

That's what my book's about, and the Grant - Lincoln axis, I think, is going to the be introduction. Or the first section. I'm still not that clear on my structure. I'm just writing.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

Yes! Antietam. That was indeed a bloody draw.

Damn McClellan's eyes!

When it comes to the Civil War, for so many it's all about the battles and nothing else. But for me, it's about what it was about, and how it happnened, and what happened afterwards, and why and how, and how we're still suffering as a nation from the same ugly people.

Love, C.

K. said...

Dave Marsh (or someone from RRC), who I think you know and who is a great guy, has -- errantly, to me -- criticized Neil Young's "Southern Man" as the classist ignorance of a Canadian interloper. At least that's how it came across to me in RRC.

But let's be real here: Mississippi, Alabama, and the rest of the Deep South were terrible places, virtually unredeemed. Rich, middle-class, and poor whites were united by their hatred of blacks. There was almost nothing resembling liberal thought.

Were poor and middle-class whites their own worst enemies and the economic victims of the wealthy? Did virulent racism exist outside the South? Yes and yes, but how does that excuse the inhuman behavior of anyone? And no place was as violent and sadistic as the Deep South. There is literally nothing to romanticize about it.

I know "Southern Man" gave plenty of people a chance to be self-congratulatory blah blah blah, but at least someone wrote a popular song about racism. It's not like there have been that many.

Foxessa said...

Dave's a most opinionated guy -- he makes us look conservative and staid.

No part of the U.S. and the population is free of racism, bigotry and intolerance, no matter where. But that doesn't mean we can't get better than that.

But there's a huge segment of the population that I don't think will ever change. It doesn't want to change. It is virulent in its hatred of those who do want this to change.

The South is so psychologically twisted from its form of slavery, based on race, and then justified by calling these human beings as less than human, but fucking them -- even when they were their daughters and sisters -- they did this. They really did. Slavery became a religion, the most twisted, evil religion in the world. Makes even the Taliban look almost sane by comparison. Cetainly equal to the Taliban in evil.

Love, C

K. said...

Howard Dean was actually right as far as it goes when he talked about getting through to the people with Confederate flag bumper stickers, but the problem is that it can't be done. You're talking about people who are proud of being bigoted and ignorant and who in effect boast about an impenetrable anti-intellectualism.

I truly believe that the only thing to do is to organize in such a way as to marginalize them politically. Not that he's necessarily thinking about this specifically, but the most impressive thing about Obama is his recognition of the importance of organizing and his capacity to do it, something that used to be the bread and butter of the Democratic party but that we've gotten away from.

The American politician who best understood the South and what had happened to it remains Lyndon Johnson. In October 1964, he made a great speech at a fundraiser in Louisiana that included this anecdote:

"But I am not going to let them build up the hate and try to buy my people by appealing to their prejudice. I heard a great son of Texas who came from an adjoining State, whose name I won't call, but he was expelled from the university over there and he started West, and he got to Texas as a boy and stopped to see a schoolmate of his.

"He liked things so well in Texas that he just decided to make it his permanent address. In 4 years he went to the Congress. After he had been in the House 2 years, he became the Democratic leader, and he served a few years as Democratic leader. And he went to the Senate and he served in the Senate 4 years and he became the Democratic leader in the Senate. He served the district that Mr. Rayburn later served.

"When Mr. Rayburn came up as a young boy of the House, he went over to see the old Senator, the leader, one evening, who had come from this Southern State, and he was talking about economic problems. He was talking about how we had been at the mercy of certain economic interests, and how they had exploited us. They had worked our women for 5 cents an hour, they had worked our men for a dollar a day, they had exploited our soil, they had let our resources go to waste, they had taken everything out of the ground they could, and they had shipped it to other sections.

"He was talking about the economy and what a great future we could have in the South, if we could just meet our economic problems, if we could just take a look at the resources of the South and develop them. And he said, "Sammy, I wish I felt a little better. I would like to go back to old"-and I won't call the name of the State; it wasn't Louisiana and it wasn't Texas--"I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech. I just feel like I have one in me. The poor old State, they haven't heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is Negro, Negro, Negro!""

That's still the story and it still works. They've just figured out slicker ways of saying it.

(The whole speech is here:

Foxessa said...

I recall that, I believe, from Caro's biography of Johnson. It is good advice.

This may well be why, taking their strategy from how the Cuban 'exiles' worked it, why they began in the 70's to pour millions and billions into 24/7 hate radio and, then later, fux news. They drowned out permantly any voice except the voice of hate, outrage and fear.

They truly believed Nixon's way is the right way, and that the president should have all power, etc., and they still do believe it. So much so they were willing to spend billions at a loss. Though, of course, now, they've recovered that investment.

The n't willing to go the distance, because they won't get it back, I guess. What Air America has become is a disgrace. It has made its deal with MSNBC.

Love, C.