Revisiting Ulysses

These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance.  I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President.  And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.

ulysses_s_grant_by_brady_c1870-restoredIt’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly.  During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death.  But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death.  His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses.  He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.

The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant.  When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened.  I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant.   I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point.  (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)

American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility.  He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented.  Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee.  To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable.  President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.

With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed.  He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery.  Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views.  And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.

His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships.  Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye.  When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.

It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised.  In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.

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Tom Wolfe Had The Right Stuff

I was deeply saddened to see that Tom Wolfe, one of the greatest writers in recent American history, died on Monday after being admitted to a New York hospital with an infection.  Wolfe was 88.

tom-wolfe-died-rolling-stone-writer-died-c0167ef2-8238-4428-a97e-eb7634d56326Tom Wolfe was an acclaimed novelist, but I will always remember him as one of the pillars of “New Journalism” in the ’60s and ’70s.  It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Tom Wolfe and the other colossal journalistic figure, Hunter S. Thompson, had on aspiring journalists in the Watergate and post-Watergate era.  Although their styles were very different, their writing had such flair and power.  Wolfe, in particular, showed enormous skill in picking and presenting topics that allowed him to skewer conventional wisdom and conventional norms and highlight some of the phoniness in modern society.  Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, published in 1970, is a classic of the “New Journalism” genre.

And then came The Right Stuff, published in 1979 just as my tenure at the Ohio State University School of Journalism was ending.  A new non-fiction book by Tom Wolfe was eagerly anticipated, so I bought the book as soon as it came out, began reading it, and just couldn’t put it down.  It’s awesome from cover to cover, and includes everything that made Wolfe great — brilliant descriptive passages, a kind of novelistic pacing, bright, laugh out loud humor, his ability to ferret out small details that communicate a lot, and the unmatched ability to step back from something, view it from a new perspective, and then present it in a way that left you nodding your head and wondering why everybody didn’t recognize that perspective in the first place.

Wolfe’s treatment of the test pilot community, the ziggurat of achievement where a pilot could wash out at any step, and then how the American obsession with the “space race” and the Mercury astronaut program upended the order and added a new, top step to the ziggurat is just fantastic.  The book shows a writer at the absolute pinnacle of his powers; in effect, Wolfe had climbed to the peak of the ziggurat of journalism and non-fiction.  I’ve read the book countless times, and it never fails to grip me even though I know exactly what is coming.  I consider The Right Stuff to be one of the great books of the 20th century, and definitely in my top 5 list.  If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to get it from the library and give yourself a treat.

Because Wolfe’s non-fiction books read like novels, thanks to his incredible creativity and skill, it was natural that he would pivot to fiction and write a series of best sellers that also captured the silly side of modern society.  His novels were good, but I always thought The Right Stuff was his greatest triumph.  In honor of the passing of this enormous talent, it’s time for me to read it again.

The Risks And Rewards Of Book Recommendations

Recently JV strongly recommended Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  I like biographies, so I got a copy of the book from the library, read it, and concluded that JV was absolutely right:  it’s a terrific, thought-provoking book about a fascinating, almost unbelievable genius that is well worth reading.

61acccc4wwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_JV’s review, though, got me to thinking about the act of making book recommendation to your friends.  When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of trust and courage to do it, because you’re exposing a bit of your inner self in doing so.  If you read a book and give it a rave review to your friends, there’s a risk that they will read it and think it’s not exactly the bee’s knees.  What you think is a deeply moving tale they might find to be banal and superficial, and what you think is a fascinating bit of history they might conclude is a long, boring slog.  And, through the prism of the book and your review of it, they might just revise their perception of you, too.

It’s a chance you take whenever you give a hearty thumbs-up or a crushing thumbs-down to any piece of popular culture, be it a book, a movie, or a TV series.  People have different interests and will find different things appealing, or off-putting.  The risk that people will disagree, though, probably causes some vulnerable people to shy away from talking about their reactions to books, movies, and the like.  If so, that’s a shame.  Anything that might discourage people from talking about books is a bad thing.

I like getting book recommendations from friends and family, precisely because they do give you some insight into the personality and preferences of the recommender.  And, too, I find that their real-world reviews tend to be a lot more reliable than some lofty, self-consciously intellectual review written by a literature professor in the New York Times book review section.

Our Two Years With Dr. Brazelton

Yesterday Kish passed along the New York Times obituary for Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who died earlier this week at age 99.  Dr. Brazelton was a nationally recognized pediatrician, but he had a much more direct connection to our family.  He was the “baby doctor” who wrote the books that we read when preparing to become parents.  Those were the books that we consulted regularly as brand-new parents who were relentlessly scrutinizing Richard, our first-born, for every potential sign of illness, unhappiness,  developmental or behavioral problems, and every other thing nervous first-time parents worry incessantly about as they try to figure out the very basic question that lies at the core of the new parent’s consciousness:  is my child normal, and okay?

51izit41s7l-_ac_us218_Perhaps a day after Kish found out she was pregnant, approximately 50 books by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton appeared on the coffee table at our tiny apartment in suburban Alexandria, Virginia.  As is her wont, Kish had done her research, consulted her sources, and decided that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton was The Man when it came to providing us with guidance about how to deal with the new member of our family.  The physical presence of the books on the coffee table when I got home from work at night helped to drive home the point that, in a few short months, there would be a new member of the family in that little apartment, and we would be responsible for taking care of him or her.  Yikes!

Within days, the once-pristine books bore the physical signs of Kish’s careful attention. The pages sprouted highlighting and post-it notes and turned-down corners, and every night Dr. Brazelton’s books would be the subject of further examination and discussion aloud.  They were a kind of holy writ for new parents, and were treated accordingly.  It was obvious that Kish planned on trying to memorize everything Dr. Brazelton wrote, so that when the new member of the family, whom we had nicknamed “Junie,” emerged into the world, she would know exactly what to do at every instant.

My review of Dr. Brazelton’s books was a little less thorough.  I would read a bit and then shiver inwardly and wonder how in the world I was every going to remember every symptom that might indicate whether Junie had some kind of fatal childhood illness.  But as the months passed, and new maternity clothes were rolled out, and the Special Day drew nearer, and the books were digested bit by bit, I came to find Dr. Brazelton’s voice reassuring.  The underlying message seemed to be that new parents could do this, and that the infant that was going to appear in your midst was in fact a pretty tough cookie who wasn’t going to be irretrievably damaged by the first inept effort to pick him up or change his diaper or feed him solid food.  I remember going home the night Richard was born, while Kish was still in the hospital, and diving once more into the world of Dr. Brazelton for a final dose of common sense and encouragement before we finally brought our tiny baby home.

Once Richard arrived in our household, and was put under the new parent microscope, Dr. Brazelton’s books remained on the coffee table and were consulted anew, and repeatedly, as Richard’s every mannerism and cry and facial expression and rash was compared to the descriptions in the books.  And somehow the three of us made it through.  When we learned that Kish was pregnant with child number two, we’d come to realize that Dr. Brazelton had been right all along — we could muddle through, somehow, and our baby turned toddler was a pretty hardy survivor after all.  By the time Russell joined the Webner family, the Dr. Brazelton books had been moved from the coffee table to the bookshelves, to be consulted in the event of something we hadn’t seen before, but for the most part we were ready to fly solo, and were a lot more relaxed about it.

We spent about two years with Dr. Brazelton and his books as a constant companion.  He provided the encouragement and support we needed, at a time of tremendous vulnerability.  I’m guessing that we weren’t alone in that regard.  Thank you, Dr. Brazelton!

Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

Fire And Ice

It’s been so cold for such a long spell lately that it’s got me thinking about cold and heat — and which is worse to endure for long periods.

fire_and_ice_by_3amireh-300x253

Extreme heat is bad for a lot of reasons.  It saps your energy, you’re a sweaty mess for most of the day, and — for me, at least — it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep in a hot room.  And, when a heat wave hits, you read stories about heat stroke and even death for people left in rooms without air conditioning.  Extreme cold is bad for a lot of reasons, too.  It’s uncomfortable and wearing to constantly feel chilled and shivery, bundling up produces hat head and static electricity shocks, and the cold, dry air leaves your skin feeling desiccated and cracked.  And extreme cold can produce frostbite and death, as well as sad news stories about unfortunate dogs being found frozen solid on porches in Toledo.

Right now, in the midst of an arctic blast that has kept temperatures in the single digits and teens for more than a week, I’m sure I would gladly trade brutal cold for heat — and come the next August hot spell, I’m equally certain I would happily swap terrible heat for cold.  But I think Robert Frost had it right in one of his early poems:  both heat and cold have their own distinctive destructive powers.

Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Down Into The Levels of Travel Hell

Dante’s Inferno envisioned nine levels of Hell, with the hopeless condemned being subjected to various kinds of torment depending on the nature of sins they had committed.

Any traveler knows that there are similar levels of Travel Hell.  Yesterday, Kish and I got down to about Level 5.

angerWe first crossed the river Styx when an early morning snowstorm and de-icing needs delayed our flight out of Columbus.  We abandoned all hope when our flight was late arriving in St. Louis and the airline inexplicably did not  hold the plane for only the few minutes needed for us to make our connection — leaving us winded and desolate as we stood at the gate, watching our plane move slowly away — and instead booked us for a flight to occur 11 hours later.  We then wandered like lost souls through the St. Louis airport, moving from terminal to terminal in the bitter cold, enduring the initial levels of Travel Hell and hoping in vain to find an earlier flight option.  We moved even lower when we decided to take an earlier flight, through Houston, with the thought that we could then drive to our ultimate destination of San Antonio, and learned that the flight was populated entirely by screaming, thrashing children and inattentive parents.

We reached our final depth when we arrived in Houston, found the rental car counters in the terminal were closed, checked to make sure that their signs indicated they had cars available, then went to a rental car area only to learn that notwithstanding the freaking sign, they had no cars, and we therefore had to return to the terminal and board another bus to get to another rental car outlet.  The final indignity came when, after waiting patiently in the line at the rental car counter and finally securing a vehicle, we were directed to a car, got in, drove to the exit, and were told that we were in the wrong kind of car and needed to return it and get another one.  After that piece de resistance, the three-hour drive through the rain from Houston to San Antonio, with oversized pick-ups with their brights on powering up right behind us, seemed like a walk in the park.

Fortunately, we didn’t reach the lowest levels of Travel Hell — which involve things like being physically ill, getting food poisoning at an airport terminal food court, and then having to spend the night in an airport in the company of fellow travelers who won’t shut up — but Level 5 was bad enough.  After 14 hours, we emerged from the pits into the friendly environs of San Antonio, and the air never smelled so sweet.