Grant 1At my age, even opening the cover of a book of more than 900 pages is a sign of optimism. Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is such a book, but far from wishing it were over, once I started reading I dreaded the day it would end. Grant, like the rest of us, was a complicated human being, and Chernow explores all the strengths and weaknesses of the man while simultaneously demonstrating why Grant was one of the most consequential and admirable public figures in American history.

Grant, whose ambition as a young man was to teach arithmetic, was a hard-luck guy in private life. He repeatedly failed at business and he was gullible and easily snookered. And he had a drinking problem that nearly wrecked his military career.

Grant 2On the other hand, he was a devoted father and husband, a military genius, and a fair and scrupulously honest man. He tried, as general and as president, to make Reconstruction work in the South—and for him that meant guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to black Americans. Although his policies regarding Native Americans weren’t perfect or particularly successful, he was more enlightened in that regard than most of his countrymen. He settled a seemingly intractable dispute with England over damages inflicted on federal properties by the Confederate cruiser Alabama—which had been purchased in England. He blazed a trail by being the first ex-president to exercise diplomacy overseas. And by the time he could see death approaching, he had become such an accomplished writer and chronicler that—in order to assure that his wife would have an income—he braved excruciating pain to write a massive two-volume memoir that is considered one of the best of its genre ever produced in this country.

One of the most ill-advised aspects of Grant’s presidency was his persistent attempts to get legislative approval of a treaty through which the United States would have annexed the Dominican Republic. 

Grant 3 - Julia

Julia Dent Grant

An aspect of Grant’s world view that Chernow develops thoroughly is particularly interesting at the present moment in our national life when controversies over memorials to Confederate leaders have exposed the bitterness between North and South that still exists in some quarters. The Grant that Chernow presents was devoted to the idea of reconciliation after the war. He demonstrated that early, at Appomattox, when he allowed Robert E. Lee’s troops, and Lee himself, some dignity in surrender. Grant traveled through the post-war South, and he warmly greeted former enemies when they called on him. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, saw to it that there were Confederate veterans among Grant’s pallbearers.

Although Grant was uncompromising in battle, he never lost his compassion for other human beings. Witness this passage describing the aftermath of a successful Union campaign directed by Grant:

As was his wont, Grant proved generous in victory. When he and his officers trotted past a downtrodden contingent of enemy prisoners, he reacted with simple decency. “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, despairing prisoners … he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege,” recalled a prisoner. “He was the only officer in that whole train who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”

Grant, as Chernow describes him, was fearless—almost reckless—in battle and thoughtful in repose. Almost no shock was great enough to break down his self control. He appeared to many of his contemporaries to be a man of silence, but in conversation he was an absorbing storyteller. And from the close of the Civil War until his death, he was wildly popular all over the country and abroad, as he and Julia discovered during the world tour that followed his second term as president. It is a melancholy thing to consider that the United States at that time did not provide a pension for former presidents, and Grant spent his retirement worrying about how he and his family were going to live.

Grant 4 - family

Julia Grant with her father, Colonel Frederick Dent, and two of her children, Nellie and Jessie

Grant isn’t the only fascinating character Chernow brings to life in this book. A host of men and women who played a part in Grant’s life, for better or for worse, provide the context for this story. They include Julia Dent Grant, the sweetheart of Grant’s life, a slaveholder’s daughter who gamely stood by her husband during the war and during his financial travails and who grew so attached to the gracious life of the White House that she was far more reluctant than Grant was to leave—and encouraged him in his unsuccessful attempt to win a third term. Also included are two gentlemen that Dickens would have loved—Grant’s father, Jesse, who was a constant embarrassment as he tried to capitalize on his son’s position, and Julia’s father, Colonel Frederick Dent, an unrepentant slaver whom Grant suffered to live in the White House even as the old man railed against the Union.

That’s a smattering of what Chernow has compiled in this biography. No matter how much time you have left, you won’t waste any of it if it’s spent reading this study of one of the finest Americans.

 

 

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Books: “Hallucinations”

December 30, 2012

Dr. OLIVER SACKS

Dr. OLIVER SACKS

I have often had the experience, as I am about to fall asleep, of seeing for a fleeting moment the image of a familiar person and hearing that person speak directly to me. Although I am always aware that the image and the voice are not real, they always seem to be real.

Phenomena of that kind are the subject of a chapter — “On the Threshold of Sleep” — in Hallucinations by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author. In this latest of his many books, Dr. Sacks discusses the wide range of circumstances under which some folks (many folks, as it turns out) see things, hear things, even smell things that do not exist in objective reality. These are not sights, sounds, or aromas that the hallucinator voluntarily conjures up in his or her own mind, but rather the products of extraordinary activity in various parts of the brain.

The hallucinations Dr. Sacks writes about may be associated with medical conditions that include epilepsy, narcolepsy, and partial or total blindness, and they may be associated with the use of certain drugs. What they usually are not associated with, Dr. Sacks writes, is mental illness. In fact, many people who experience hallucinations are aware that what appears real to them is, in fact, not real.

CHARLES BONNET

CHARLES BONNET

The condition Sacks explores first, setting a context for the rest of the book, is Charles Bonnet Syndrome, or CBS, which was first identified by an 18th century Swiss naturalist. Persons with CBS have deteriorating or deteriorated eyesight, and they have hallucinations that in a sense fill in the gap of visual sensory input. These hallucinations may be superimposed on the impaired visual field or they may fill in the blind spot of people who have lost sight in half the visual field. Sacks provides this contrast between hallucinations of this kind and dreams:

“Dreamers are wholly enveloped in their dreams, and usually active participants in them, whereas people with CBS retain their normal, critical waking consciousness. CBS hallucinations, even though they are projected into external space, are marked by a lack of interaction; they are always silent and neutral—they rarely convey or evoke any emotion. They are confined to the visual, without sound, smell, or tactile sensation. They are remote, like images on a cinema screen in a theater one has chanced to walk into. The theater is in one’s own mind, and yet the hallucinations seem to have little to do with one in any deeply personal sense.”

waynetownindiana.com

waynetownindiana.com

Dr.Sacks has spent his professional lifetime collecting case histories from his own interactions with patients, from his reading, and from correspondents who have shared their experiences with them. In this book as in most of his previous ones, he uses that knowledge to illuminate the growing understanding of the human brain.

Meanwhile, the subject matter of this book reminded me of the poem by Hughes Mearns:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

That poem is called Antigonish because it was inspired by a ghost story in the Nova Scotia city of that name. Mearns, an educator who believed deeply in cultivating the creativity of children, wrote the lines for a play called Psyco-ed while he was a student at Harvard. It was published as a poem in 1922.

Once a year I have the terrifying privilege of preaching to children who are about to receive the Eucharist for the first time. It’s a May experience, and it took place again last Sunday morning. I am serious about both the noun – privilege – and the adjective. In fact, I told the children last Sunday that I approached them with trepidation, because I am accustomed to having a written homily lying in front of me there in the ambo, even if I seldom look at it. When I speak to the children, I have to do it standing in the center aisle, close to them, and speak informally. I’m not comfortable doing that.

In order to have at least something to cling to, I always bring a prop on these occasions. I have brought my Howdy Doody dummy, my “first communion” picture, a set of juggling balls – anything to create a focal point other than me for the three or four minutes of this enterprise.

So last Sunday I brought Raggedy Ann and Andy, two large dolls that I bought for Pat about 35 years ago. They were hand-made by a woman who at the time was about 100 years old, and they are exquisite. Pat’s appreciation of their exquisite-ness has faded as the house has become increasingly burdened with more than 40 years of such acquisitions, and she has encouraged me to sell the dolls or give them away. Instead of doing that, I have taken possession of them, and I keep them in my clothes closet where I can see them every day.

I used that image to build a homily about friends who never turn their backs on you. I began by producing the dolls out of a large gift bag and asking the children to identify these two stuffed characters. Most of the kids didn’t know. Only one girl was able to identify both dolls. My homily didn’t depend on the children knowing the names of the dolls, but I couldn’t help feeling a little twinge of melancholy as I saw the boys and girls look blankly at the once iconic figures.

Raggedy Ann was created in 1905 by a talented writer-cartoonist, Johnny Gruelle, when he drew a face on a rag doll for his daughter, Marcella, and derived the name from the titles of two poems by James Whitcomb Riley– The Raggedy Man  and Little Orphant Annie. The term “orphant” was an example of the Hoosier dialect Riley adopted in his work. The second poem was the inspiration for the cartoon character Little Orphan Annie. WhenMarcella was 13, she contracted diphtheria after being vaccinated at school. She died shortly thereafter, and the Gruelles attributed her death on the medication she had received. Johnny Gruelle became a leading critic of vaccination, and Raggedy Annie was for a time the symbol of the movement.

In 1918, Gruelle – who was the son of American impressionist painter Richard Buckner Gruelle– published a children’s book, Raggedy Ann Stories, and a doll was sold in connection with it. The brother of the original character was introduced in 1920 in Raggedy Andy Stories. There were more than 40 subsequent books, some of them written and illustrated by Gruelle and some by others. The characters spawned a wide variety of other products, many of which are still on the market — even if the parents in my parish aren’t buying them.

I heard a report on National Public Radio last fall about the closing of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. The museum once drew 450,000 visitors a year — as many as stopped by Hoover Dam — but the outlandish pianist’s appeal had no staying power, and the people who did care grew old. Who thought that would happen to reliable old Raggedy Ann and Andy, but it has. Their museum, which was located in Gruelle’s home town of Arcola, Illinois — admittedly not on The Strip — closed its doors in 2008.

Sir John Tenniel's drawing of Alice

It’s one of the paradoxes of both history and human nature that the man who wrote some of the most enduring literature for children has been accused of pedophilia. I refer to Lewis Carroll — that is, the Rev. Mr. Charles Dodgson — author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.” The notion that Carroll had improper relations with under-aged girls evolved from his real relationships with females in general and young girls in particular — neither of which was entirely consistent with the norms of Victorian England — and his career as an amateur photographer, which included photographing naked young girls.

This characterization of Carroll has been debunked in the past, but it persists in the popular imagination, probably because the popular imagination would find a pedophile more interesting than the person Carroll seems to have been in reality. The issue is examined again in a new book by journalist Jenny Woolf, “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.”

Lewis Carroll and his camera, 1863, in a portrait by Swedish photographer Oscar Rejlander

Based on her research of primary and secondary sources — and a certain amount of logic and common sense — Woolf comes to the conclusion not only that Carroll was not a pedophile, but that the most prominent features of his life and his mind militate against such a thing — that, in fact, he had a horror of abuse of women and children that was consistent with his horror of sin in general.

Woolf emphasizes a point about this issue that is useful to remember when we are reflecting on any historical figure. She points out that those who have charged Carroll with every crime from adultery to murder — one author even wrote that Carroll and a confrere were jointly Jack the Ripper — have often tried to interpret his behavior and his work without taking full account of the Victorian context in which he lived. The most telling evidence she presents, in fact, is that neither the children whom Carroll photographed nor their parents thought of the sittings as anything but proper, and that some of those children grew to adulthood and even old age with only the highest regard and affection for Carroll.

This is not to say that Carroll’s life was without its complications, including sexual ones. One important aspect of his life was odd even for that time, and it has to have figured prominently in some of the behavior that contributed to rumors about him then and since. Carroll took a position as a mathematics instructor at Christ Church, one of the colleges at Oxford. The school continued a medieval discipline in which a man accepting that position must receive holy orders as an Anglican deacon and remain celibate until he was ordained a priest, at which point he would take a parish, marry and begin a family.

Lorina Liddell, in a portrait by Lewis Carroll. Lorina was an older sister of Alice Liddell, the namesake for the title character in Carroll's most famous works.

Although it was expected of him by everyone beginning with his father, a priest himself, Carroll postponed and eventually opted out of priestly ordination, which meant that — unless he gave up his position, which he could not afford to do — he opted out of married life and, therefore, sexual relations. At the same time, while he outwardly kept up the grim image of a Victorian college don, he maintained a lively social network, more often than not conducted in the company of women. He loved women, and he didn’t disguise that, and they were charmed by him. On one hand, these relationships — including private tet-a-tets in Carroll’s rooms, were not usual in Victorian England. On the other hand, Woolf explains, there is no evidence at all that any of them crossed the lines that everyone in that time and place knew to be unmovable.

Still, Woolf shows convincingly that Carroll at a certain point in his life began to grieve over some unstated offense that he perceived he had committed, and this guilt ran head-on into the strict sense of morality that he measured himself by throughout his life. It was this crisis, Woolf thinks, that at least in part inspired Carroll’s cultivation of friendships with young children, and especially young girls, who — in Victorian society — were regarded as the antithesis of sexual. In these relationships, Woolf argues, Carroll could have beauty and affection without the complicating ingredient of sexual attraction. And, of course, he could indulge in his lifelong fascination with word games and fanciful stories and children’s playthings.

Alice Liddell, for a time one of Carroll's child friends and the namesake for his most famous literary character. Carroll's portrait of her as a beggar girl has been used by some of his critics as evidence of peversion.

One of Woolf’s frustrations — and she is hardly alone  in this — is that Carroll and his family seldom talked about his private life, not an unusual scruple for the time, and significant documentation of his life, including some of his diaries, were either redacted by his survivors or simply vanished.

Woolf does write about the possibility, or the likelihood, that the much-discussed rift between Carroll and the family of Alice Liddell — at whose request he committed the original “Alice” story to writing — may have had to do with his attention, not to Alice but to her attractive older sister Lorina. Marriage in those days often had little to do with romance, and the Liddell family may have had bigger plans for Lorina than a liaison with a math lecturer, and a mediocre one at that.

The Boston Globe’s review of Jenny Woolf’s book, which treats many aspects of Carroll’s life and work, is at THIS LINK.

A page from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with Carroll's own sketch of the title character.


Good, good grief

May 30, 2009

peanuts1960scollectionI just read — for the purpose of reviewing it — a book called “Security Blankets: How Peanuts ® Touched Our Lives.” This is a collection of about 50 stories from people who feel their time on earth has been enriched somehow by the comic strip, the books, the TV specials, the tchatchke, or by some encounter with Charles Schulz himself.

It appears to me that the book is an attempt to reinvigorate the trade in stuffed Snoopy dolls (referred to repeatedly in the book as “plush”) or other “collectibles.” Maybe the Peanuts market is suffering from the combined effects of Schulz’s absence, the aging of the Peanuts Generation, and the paucity of disposable income.

 

THE RED BARON

THE RED BARON

That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories here. One of my favorites was submitted by a man whose father was not only a World War I flying ace, but who piloted a Sopwith Camel and, in August 1918, actually outran the Red Baron himself. 

Several of the people whose little essays appear in this book said, in one way or another, that their own cares or frustrations became a little easier to bear when they realized that others shared their feelings. Of course, the “others” were fictional cartoon characters, although many a Tuesday night meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church might have provided the same kind of support, except in flesh and blood rather than pen and ink. The writers in “Security Blankets” may have been unwittingly identifying with the often solitary and unfulfilled artist behind those characters rather than with the characters themselves.

 

MICKEY MANTLE

MICKEY MANTLE

Still, these stories reminded me of a book I read that contained a collection of letters that had been written to Mickey Mantle whose family published them after his death in order to raise money for an organ-transplant program. The letters told Mantle how much he had meant either to the writer or to someone in the writer’s life — a father, perhaps. Mantle, I have read elsewhere, was always mystified by sentiments of this kind. He felt, I suppose, like Louie DePalma — the “Taxi” character — who said of his girlfriend: “She sees something in me … something that’s not there.” 

But both cases may be related to an idea I passed along to my students last semester — that once a writer has published a story, a poem, or an essay, he no longer owns it. Once he has published it, it belongs to the reader — and to each individual reader in a unique way. Neither the writer nor the writer’s critics can tell the reader what the reader can infer from the work. Maybe that’s true of cartoonists and swtich hitters, too: that once they have led their lives, they cannot control, nor contradict, what people infer from them.

ALASTAIR SIM 

 

ALASTAIR SIM

 

I anticipate with some trepidation the release of the new Disney film version of Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol.” This film, due to be released in November, will be a 3-D, high-tech extravaganza in which Jim Carrey plays Ebenezer Scrooge and the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future.

Carrey has said that one of his greatest inspirations for the role of Scrooge was Alastair Sim’s performance in the 1951 British movie “Scrooge,” which was released in the United States as “A Christmas Carol.” Having read all of Dickens’ work, having read all of his novels mulitple times, having read “A Christmas Carol” at least once a year since 1955, I regard the Alastair Sim film to be the best attempt at translating the story to the screen – although I maintain that the story should be read on the page as Dickens intended, and that it can only be diminished when it is tampered with by screen writers and directors.

 

MERVYN JOHNS and ALASTAIR SIM

MERVYN JOHNS and ALASTAIR SIM

What concerns me is that the Disney bunch will trivialize Dickens’ angry attack on materialistic values – a mood not entirely out of place in the world of AIG executives and Bernard Madloff. As it is, one has to search long and hard to find an adult who reads Dickens at all. Skewed versions of his work only serve to distort its meaning and obscure its value. Millions of kids who are exposed to such a presentation will go through life thinking it represents Dickens’ intentions.

I realize that I am an anachronism for suggesting that people read the classics without being required to. It’s too much work for a generation whose reading matter must fit on the screen of a Blackberry and be brief enough to be digested before the light changes to green. I once suggested that a local book club lay off the contemporary novels for a month and read “Oliver Twist” or “Great Expectations,” and the suggestion was brushed off as if it were babble coming from a dark corner in a nursing home. 

 

JIM CARREY as SCROOGE

JIM CARREY as SCROOGE

One of the things that makes me suspicious of the Disney movie is that Carrey will play four roles and – according to the publicity – give each one its distinctive personality. What is the purpose of that? It sounds like little more than a stunt, and the fact that the producers are approaching the film in this way – and the memory of all the wacky imagery that has characterized some of Carrey’s successful roles in the past – don’t seem consistent with the mood of Dickens’ story.

Call me old-fashioned. I am.

A clip from the film can be seen at this link:

http://www.cinematical.com/2009/05/18/first-footage-from-disneys-a-christmas-carol/

“Bother!”

April 29, 2009

winnieThe death of character actor Peter Dennis calls to mind the seemingly inexhaustible appeal of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. Although, I often wonder how many people know Milne’s characters – which have been thoroughly exploited – without knowing them in their original context. Peter Dennis used to tour with a one-man show that consisted of him reading from the Pooh books and other works by Milne. He maintained – and the large crowds he drew seemed to confirm – that Milne’s stories weren’t just for children. That’s certainly true. Superimposed on the tales themselves is a kind of harmonic of humor and philosophy that only adults are likely to perceive. The same is true of Kenneth Graham’s “The Wind in the Willows.” It is so much true of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books that there probably is more for adults in their pages than there is for children.

 

PETER DENNIS

PETER DENNIS

Or, at least, there would be more for adults if adults are still reading these books. It’s prophetic that in the last scene of the second Pooh book, Christopher Robin tells Pooh that they can’t continue their previous relationship because “they won’t let you” – the “they” being humorless grownups. There is a similar passage in another of Graham’s books, “Dream Days,”  in which a family of children go out in the dead of night and bury in the yard some toys that the adults – the narrator calls them Olympians – have packed away because the children, in the view of grownups, have outgrown them. “As we turned to go,” the narrator says, “the man in the moon, tangled in elm-boughs, caught my eye for a moment, and I thought that never had he looked so friendly. He was going to see after them, it was evident; for he was always there, more or less, and so it was no trouble to him at all, and he would tell them how things were still going, up here, and throw in a story or two of his own whenever they seemed a trifle dull. It made the going away rather easier, to know one had left somebody behind on the spot; a goodfellow, too, cheery, comforting, with a fund of anecdote; a man in whom one had every confidence.”

Who’s that knocking?

April 10, 2009

vampire-power-1One of my literary disappointments was Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” which I thought was one of the clumsiest works of fiction I had ever read. I came to it sort of in mid life. I read more non-fiction than fiction, but when I finally got around to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” I was enthralled, and I naively thought I’d have a similar experience with “Dracula.” It was not to be. The book is awkwardly written with unnatural dialogue and none of the philosophical depth of Shelley’s work. Of course, the idea that Stoker’s work should have any of those qualities originated only in my own mind, so I suppose I was disappointed more by myself than by the writer. 

Maybe it was because of that experience that I find myself on the outside looking in at the current fascination with vampires, especially among young people. Obviously, I’m missing something. NPR this week ran a review by John Powers about a Swedish film “Let the Right One In,” that was intriguing. Powers calls it “the best vampire movie in the last 75 years.” It had only limited release but is now available on DVD, which was the occasion for the review. The principal characters in this film are a 12-year-old boy who is alienated from his parents and rejected – even tormented – by his schoolmates, and his new next-door-neighbor, the lonely girl Eli, who has been 12 years old for the past 200 years. Their mutual isolation draws them together into a relationship that apparently succeeds artistically on several levels.

It was a coincidence that I happened to hear that review, because vampires have been on my mind for several weeks, since we heard Michael Smith give a concert in Morristown. One of the songs he performed that night was “Vampire,” and it’s been churning around in my mind ever since:

Your life’s too short and love is gone too soon
Come with me and fly the dark of moon, the dark of moon,
Life’s not life if you must lose it
Death’s not death if you refuse it
Who can blame you
If you choose the vampire
Forever young
Forever young
Forever

As with most of Michael’s songs, this one means far more when you hear him deliver it – plaintive, chilling, moving.

Excuse me. I think I hear someone at the door.

 

Michael Smith’s lyrics: http://www.artistsofnote.com/michael/lyrics/vampire.shtml

NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102909283&ft=1&f=1008