Saturday, September 19, 2009

Four Books On U.S. Grant

From time to time I have been asked why I have this Matthew Brady photo of General Grant on the wall of my office. My ready reply goes something like this. "General Grant's life expresses a number of character qualities from which I get inspiration. He was a model of initiative, purposefulness, determination and creative problem solving. For these reasons, among others, I consider him a hero. I think everyone would benefit from having heroes to inspire and in some ways emulate."

There's one more thing about Grant that I also find inspiring. Before he came into his own, his life was floundering. He appeared to be a loser. For all intents and purposes, he was a loser, failing at everything and gaining for himself a reputation as a person more to be mocked than praised. But in his mid-thirties, when the Civil War split the nation, it afforded the young Grant an opportunity to do that for which he had become ideally suited.... to lead men.

For many years, I likewise floundered. After college I became a security guard for a couple years. Later I went to Mexico where I became a "failed missionary" by leaving at the end of a year instead of the three I'd committed to. For several more years I cast about, feeling a sense of "calling" as a writer but uncertain as to how that would really play out. Interestingly enough, I recently learned that my father privately confided to his sister that he was concerned at one point that he might have to support me the rest of my life. And I am certain that young Ulysses Grant's dad felt precisely the same concern for this loser son who was working in a hardware store for his brother.

For Grant, the skills were in place but the opportunity to utilize all his strengths had been absent. Gratefully, I too came into my own in my thirties and have experience more than two decades of success in advertising, marketing and PR.

The point here is that Grant's peers perceived him in a certain light based on circumstances, but there was much more to the man than met the eye. Furthermore, the trajectory of a life is not a fixed thing. Grant's trajectory changed significantly at a certain point in time, and it propelled him to the White House.

Here are four brief reviews on books about Ulysses Simpson Grant that I have enjoyed over the years.

Ulysses S. Grant, The Unlikely Hero by Michael Korda
Korda's bio of Grant is part of the Eminent Lives series of biographies of significant people For decades Korda had been editor-in-chief for Simon and Schuster, and is a well known essayist, novelist and literary figure. Hence, when I saw the book displayed at B&N, it was immediately placed in my "gotta have it" list.

Korda is an entertaining writer and the book unearths, in a creative manner, many observations and anecdotes about one of my favorite presidents. The book's aim is not to be comprehensive. Rather, Korda offers a thought provoking overview of the man and his achievements.

I've found it to be a thoroughly absorbing read, but do have questions about his repeated assertions regarding Grant's drinking, a theme that is pretty heavily underscored throughout the narrative. Is Korda's portrait accurate on this matter, or is the case built on rumor and innuendo? Stereotypes die hard. Grant was a man who accomplished much but who likewise made his mistakes. Korda's book comes highly recommended for its tight presentation of an interesting and significant man.

The Trial of U.S. Grant by Charles G. Ellington
This book was given to me as a gift by Charles Ellington himself in 1991 and it was a wonderful read. A grad from the Universities of Missouri, Harvard, and California Western, Ellington is (like myself) a USG fan. This book is an exploration of the events in Grant's life in the post-Mexican War period from 1852-1854. These two years in apparently aimless military service left Grant isolated, frustrated and homesick for his wife and two sons, one of whom he had never seen.

Ellington argues that this period of virtual exile was instrumental in developing the strength of character that resulted in Grant's later achievements. The author spent ten years researching the book and it is an excellent contribution to any Grant collection.

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by Grant himself
For the 24 hours my wife Susie was in labor with my firstborn son, I was accompanied by this book, the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. The origin of this fabulous memoir is a story itself. Grant had served two terms as 18th president of the United States. His finances were handled by a son who had gone into a partnership with another man who swindled them. Thus, the great general and former president was a penniless pauper. Mark Twain recognized that Grant's life would be a very marketable story. The result was a bestselling autobiography that helped Grant to be financially comfortable in his twilight years.

The preface opens thus: "Man proposes and God disposes." There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.

This is a remarkable observation, and a great start point for a very enlightening read. I've read it twice and have retained many insights from its pages. If you have to choose but one book from this list of four, this is it.

Grant Wins the War, Decision At Vicksburg by James R. Arnold
Of the twenty most brilliant campaigns in military history, more than half were by Napoleon. Only two were conceived and executed by generals in the U.S. Civil War. The first was General Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Campaign. The second, Grant's victory at Vicksburg.

James Arnold begins this book by presenting the significance of the battle of Vicksburg. A key to success, whether in war or business, is not simply winning battles but in fighting the right battles. What propelled Grant to fame was not winning victories alone, but recognizing the importance of the objectives he pursued. Vicksburg, in Arnold's estimation, was even more significant than Gettysburg in bringing down the South.
This book focuses specifically on this singular battle, the challenges it presented and the unique strategies which Grant employed to achieve his aims. Arnold writes vividly and with great respect for all involved. Like the others, it is highly recommended, not only to Grant fans but to war buffs of all stripes.
Click on photos to enlarge. The map beneath the books shows the location of Grant's Pass in Oregon.


Christella D. Moody said...

Good insight comparing parts of your life to Grant.

Ed Newman said...

Yes, glad you caught that. You really never know where your path will lead. The one thing we do have control over is to keep improving our selves to be worthy if the next door opens.

Thanks for the note.