Sunday, February 19, 2012

Generally Speaking

now reading: Grant: A Biography by William S. McFeely

In my prez bios project, I am on president #18, one Ulysses S. Grant. Of course, trivia lovers among you may know that he was not in fact named Ulysses S. Grant, rather, his name was Hiram Ulysses Grant and the (senator? congressman?) who got him into West Point mucked up his name and it kind of went from there. Anyway, I am a little past halfway through this book and as usual it is interesting learning about the president's formative years, rise to fame and greatness, and place in the swirling events of history. I continue to love this reading project. As for Grant in particular....

He was quite the popular hero. I have always been fascinated/skeptical when it comes to the voting-public-enthalled-by-a-general thing (like, what exactly makes a general qualified to be president? no one can say), but it happens every few presidents, even though it hasn't worked in my lifetime (yet), most prominently when some people bandied about Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf's name but that was a total non-starter.

This particular biography actually qualifies for two of my reading projects, as it is also a Pulitzer Prize winner; howEVer, I am actually not sure if I think it's superb, so far. It's interesting, but not really drawing me in more than any other biography, as you might expect a Pulitzer winner to do. The most interesting thing about this book  so far is how William S. McFeely is the first biographer I've read who actually calls out "great war leadership" for what it is: getting men to kill other men. At first (the earliest chapters in the book) I was excited because I thought he was actually going to go with that thought and try to make people see how stupid and murderous war is, but instead he goes down a different path of kind of making it Grant's flaw that only leadership in war could bring out his talents as opposed to business or politics or whatever he tried as a young man.  I suppose it was shocking enough for some academic writer to actually call a spade a spade (war is senseless murder) and that's why he doesn't really go any further and indict everyone responsible (i.e., people who might be reading his book).

McFeely is totally defensive of (#18) Grant's role in (#17) Andrew Johnson's presidency, and it's interesting to contrast this point of view with the biography of Johnson I recently read that explains what a raw deal Johnson got from the Congressional Republicans in the early days of Reconstruction.

As usual, I continue to see how large the story of slavery and blacks in America looms in the history of the United States, despite how thin of a thread it is in the tapestry of many of my school social studies textbooks. The story of race relations in the U.S. is so not just one thread. It deserves all the study activists try to give it and more.


gayspiritwarrior said...

Hi Linda!
Just a couple of comments. 1) The most recent General/President we've had is Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. I remember both of his terms in office and recall him as a smiling grandfather-type. History seems inclined to remember him more for his generalship than for his presidency, though he did rather presciently warn us about the "military-industrial complex." 2) The first Pulitzer-prize novel I read in HS was "A Bell for Adano." I remember not being very impressed by it. I suppose that might change now, but how much more wonderful are PP winners, as a class? They are, after all, just the selection of a committee. Maybe the prize raises our expectations of them unfairly.

linda said...

Thanks for your comments, Gene! I have a minor obsession with the Pulitzer Prizes but have read many more of the novel/fiction winners than the biographies. I rather like seeing how the story of a century of the U.S. is told by reading the Pulitzer-winning fiction. This biography seems to have a lot of praise, not just from the committee...who knows, maybe it will get better in the second half. Thanks for your thoughts on Ike!