Ulysses S. Grant: New Biography of ‘A Nobody From Nowhere’ – The New York Times

 

AMERICAN ULYSSES           A Life of Ulysses S. Grant

By Ronald C. White        Illustrated. 826 pp. Random House. $35

“Gore Vidal did not expect Ulysses S. Grant to be funny. In the novel “1876,” Vidal’s protagonist, Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, hears an anecdote about President Grant’s disgust with Senator Charles Sumner’s ego. It was said that Sumner did not believe in the Bible. “No, I suppose not,” Grant replied; “he didn’t write it.”

“I laughed spontaneously, and with some surprise,” Vidal wrote, in the voice of Schuyler. “I had not thought General Grant a wit.” Few did, or do. When Grant came to Washington to take overall command of the Union armies in early 1864, he struck one officer as “stumpy, unmilitary, slouchy.” Maj. Gen. George Meade wrote that Grant “is very reticent, has never mixed with the world and has but little manner, indeed is somewhat ill at ease in the presence of strangers; hence a first impression is never favorable.”

“The world” Meade wrote of was less a sphere than a stratum, one of sophistication and social standing — for this was the era evoked in Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” as much as Mark Twain’s “Roughing It.” Grant was roughing it. The Ohio-born son of a tanner, he survived West Point, did well at war in Mexico, then resigned from the Army amid rumors of heavy drinking. He failed in business, failed in farming and finally fell into his father’s leather shop in Galena, Ill. The Civil War slid him back into uniform. When he fought, he rose. However high his rank, though, he remained a nobody from nowhere, and he knew it. Grant hardened the membrane of contact between himself and “the world” into awkward armor plate, stiff layers of silence.”

Source: Ulysses S. Grant: New Biography of ‘A Nobody From Nowhere’ – The New York Times

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