Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) rose to become the commanding general of the Union forces in the Civil War. In 1865, after defeating Robert E. Lee, he accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. In 1869, he became the 18th president of the United States. He served two terms. In 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer. To provide for his family, he immediately began writing this memoir. He died a few days after finishing it. From Wikipedia:

Grant’s memoirs treat his early life and time in the Mexican–American War briefly and are inclusive of his life up to the end of the Civil War. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and commercial success. [His wife] Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties….The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics…. He candidly depicted his battles against both the Confederates and internal army foes. Twain called the Memoirs a “literary masterpiece.” Given over a century of favorable literary analysis, reviewer Mark Perry states that the Memoirs are “the most significant work” of American non-fiction.

Grant was a wonderful writer. His language is elegant but easy to understand. The book should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about the Civil War, but also to anyone who wants to appreciate the complexities involved in leading a massive army. Grant’s comments on the nature of the Southern rebellion are especially interesting. He appreciated the skill and bravery of his opponents, but makes it clear that they were fighting for a terrible cause.

The only problem I had with the book is that there are lengthy descriptions of large and small-scale troop movements. Grant describes how troops were deployed in individual battles as well as the movement of armies containing as many as 80,000 soldiers. The problem is that it’s hard to understand what’s happening without being familiar with the geography of both individual battles and the Southern states. The maps in this edition were useless. I would have loved to hear Grant’s words while watching an animated video showing what he was describing.

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Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939 by Volker Ullrich

This is the first part of a two-part biography of Hitler. It takes him up to his 50th birthday in 1939, a few months before he started World War 2. I came away with a much clearer understanding of who he was and what his goals were (although the book covers German politics in more detail than I needed).

In a sense, therefore, the book “humanizes” or “normalizes” him. For example, he could be charming. He wasn’t an ignoramus. He could be a spellbinding speaker. He doesn’t appear to have been monstrous or even especially anti-Semitic from the beginning. He was certainly a ruthless demagogue even in the 1920s and 1930s as he gained power. Maybe being worshiped by millions of Germans helped turn him into a monster.

I guess what I’m saying is that if he had become a dictator; seized the Rhineland; negotiated Germany’s absorption of Austria and the Sudetenland (the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia) without a shot being fired; and brutally forced the emigration of millions of Jews from Germany, he might have been considered an especially ruthless but successful leader. There have been dictators in the past and will be more in the future. It seems that he descended into the absolute abyss in the six years not covered by Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939. Presumably, Ullrich’s second volume will be called Hitler: Descent 1939 – 1945.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

There are two principal topics in this book: time travel and time. Since time travel is fiction, the history of time travel presented in the book is the history of ideas about time travel, mostly ideas expressed in novels like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, short stories like Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and movies like The Terminator. Time travel can be fun to think about, and ideas about time travel are suggestive of what people have thought about time, but I quickly lost interest in the topic. So I ended up skimming those sections of the book.

On the other hand, Gleick’s discussion of time itself was worth reading. He covers both physics and philosophy, and does an excellent job explaining complex, competing ideas about time. For example:

You can say Einstein discovered that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. But it’s better to say, more modestly, Einstein discovered that we can describe the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum and that such a model enables physicists to calculate almost everything, with astounding exactitude, in certain limited domains. Call it space-time for the convenience of reasoning….

You can say the equations of physics make no distinction between past and future, between forward and backward in time. But if you do, you are averting your gaze from the phenomena dearest to our hearts. You leave for another day or another department the puzzles of evolution, memory, consciousness, life itself. Elementary processes may be reversible; complex processes are not. In the world of things, time’s arrow is always flying.

It’s an interesting question whether the calculations of the physicists are so accurate because the universe really is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. And is the passage of time some kind of illusion, like many physicists believe? Gleick leans toward time being quite real and physicists taking their models a bit too seriously. I think this would have been a better book if he spent more time on the physics and philosophy and less time on the fiction.

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

This is Nelson Algren’s impressionistic essay about his hometown. It was published in 1951 and wasn’t warmly-received by Chicago’s upper crust. Algren looks back fondly on Chicago’s history with an emphasis on the rougher parts of town. An alternate subtitle would have been “I Love This Dirty Town” (a line Burt Lancaster delivered in Sweet Smell of Success about a big city further east).

I read the 60th Anniversary Edition, which includes an afterword Algren wrote in 1961 about Chicago and his book:

In the decade since Chicago: City on the Make appeared, it has gained pertinence. At that time it was a prose poem about my hometown; nothing more.

It was received unfavorably, locally, and I was disappointed when the editor who had solicited it took fright… The book went under the counters…

Under the counters, yet not lost. A translation by Jean-Paul Sartre gained the essay readers abroad…

The essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from the privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present resolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption… [105].

The book is filled with references to Chicago characters and events that most outsiders won’t recognize, so the editors kindly added explanatory notes. The notes sometimes explain what doesn’t need explaining and don’t explain what does. That’s one reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book, but if you like prose like this, you might give it a try:

Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.

In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.

Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance… No giants live on Rush Street any more [52-53]. 

On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel

Mary Astor played Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She’s the pretty woman to whom Sam Spade says “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice” and “I hope they don’t hang you, precious” and “You’re taking the fall”. She began her film career early in the silent era, easily transitioned to sound, won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, played the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, and was still appearing on TV and in movies in the early 60s.

She might have been a bigger star but, having a fear of failure, she chose to take smaller roles. She also mismanaged her money, drank too much and had sex with a lot of men, including her four husbands. She discussed all this in two well-received autobiographies. She also kept a diary. Reporters said it had a purple cover, but it was actually brown.

Edward Sorel is an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist who is best-known for his political satire. The story he tells in this short book is that he was tearing up the linoleum in his New York apartment one night in 1965 and found some 30-year old newspapers. They were filled with accounts of a Los Angeles child custody trial involving Mary Astor and her first husband. What made the trial such a big deal was that Astor had kept a diary that supposedly described her private life, including her many affairs, in lurid detail. Although the diary was never shared with the public, the nation’s imagination ran wild.

For reasons he can’t explain, Sorel quickly became fascinated with the trial, the diary, and Mary Astor. But it took him 50 years to finally get around to writing this book.

He isn’t a great writer, but he tells the story reasonably well. Unfortunately, he inserts his own life story here and there, which isn’t very interesting. It also wasn’t clear to me where exactly the diary was during the trial. Apparently, the lawyers for Astor’s husband claimed to have lost it, possibly so they could make the diary sound more incriminating than it actually was. After the trial, the diary and some photostatic copies (possibly altered by the husband’s lawyers) were placed in a safe deposit box. Years later, the court ordered the contents of the safe deposit box to be destroyed.

The story Sorel tells is entertaining but isn’t as racy as it sounds. His illustrations, however, are excellent, especially the one with Mary Astor, mostly naked, holding her diary while lying on a fainting couch, with the big Hollywood studios in the background.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.