Friday, January 6, 2006

Books You Might Enjoy

Even if you’re not a Civil War buff like me, you will definitely enjoy “Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War” by Charles Bracelen Ford [Ferrar, Straus & Giroux: 2005]. The research is fresh and stunning. All of us heard about Grant’s drinking but the story has usually been that he drank to excess as a young officer in the Mexican War and that because his wife wasn’t around. Bracelen’s research, drawn from papers newly released of Grant’s top staffer, Brig. Gen. John A. Rawlins who was also from Galena, Illinois shows that Grant was not only forced to resign from the army for public drunkenness during the war with Mexico, but was known as a tippler who would go off on toots during the Civil War. Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton sent an investigator to spy on Grant, none other than Charles Dana, former managing editor of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. But Dana became convinced that Grant was indispensable to the war effort and so he sat on the information, working with Rawlins to smother the information.

At the same time, William T. Sherman entered the army as a twitchy neurotic whom some regarded as a psychotic. Speaking of Grant, Sherman said, “He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk and now, sir, we stand by each other always.” A vital read.

Another vital read is “Mark Twain: A Life” by Ron Powers [Free Press: 2005]. Twain always struck me as a kind of wise guy, able to coin some one-liners but not especially prepossessing. But Powers, who was the Sun-Times’ TV critic years ago, has done a marvelous job. While Hemingway has said that all modern American literature begins with “Huckleberry Finn,” I have to say that while it is gripping I doubt it was a paragon; but Powers will give you the upside and downside of Twain in a book that should become the model for Twain biographies. Twain made a lot of money but was an easy sucker for other get-rich schemes. What Powers does for me is to disabuse me of any thought that Twain was the “ghost” behind Grant’s Memoirs. Grant couldn’t spell very well but his writing not just in this book but in the above-mentioned “Grant and Sherman” is lucid and memorable. What Twain did is to get to Grant early when Grant was dying of cancer and convince him to toss aside a measly contract with a publisher. Twain then took on the chore of publishing Grant, ensuring that the old general and his family would get enough funds to pay the bills ($2 million in 1885!). Grant’s own words have given him a kind of imperishability as a memoir writer. Do read it.

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