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Banned In China

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Another Book Report



WITH SOME LATER ADDITIONS

I've just finished reading Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton.  It is either the first volume of a two volume history of Grant in the Civil War or the second volume of a trilogy of Grant in the army.  I have the trade paperback and on the cover it says:  PART ONE OF THE CLASSIC CIVIL WAR STUDY OF GENERAL ULYSSES S. GRANT.  However, inside on one of the early unnumbered pages there is a Publisher's Note that explains that they had published Captain Sam Grant by Lloyd Lewis the first volume of a three volume biography of Grant.  However, Lewis died before the publication of that book and Catton was brought in to "finish" the trilogy.  Although, I am sure he did a great deal of his own research. 

This book is a biography of two living beings really.  It follows Grant from his re-enlistment at the start of the Civil War until the capture of Vicksburg, and it also is a biography of the Army of the Tennessee, one of the greatest and most successful armies in American history.  Catton moves effortlessly from descriptions of Grant and his personal battles and relationships to a description of the Army as an almost living thing with a character and life of its own independent of Grant but also interconnected with him in a special way that made them both great.

Captain Sam Grant was published in 1950.  Grant Moves South was published in 1960 and the final volume of the trilogy Grant Takes Command also by Catton was published in 1968.  I have the final volume in hardback and it also has a similar Publisher's Note inside, but no claim on the cover.  On the other hand I have seen the cover of the trade paperback on Amazon and it has a similar claim (PART TWO, etc.). 

I've read several of Catton's books including the Army of the Potomac Trilogy and This Hallowed Ground his one volume history of the Civil War, and his Centennial History of the Civil War.  But I read them, more or less when they came out.  It looks like I got these books also close to the actual publishing dates, but I didn't read them then.  I think that I was interested in stories of battle and not so much the analysis of Grant's character or the descriptions of just what had to be done by a commanding general to deal with the logistics of the army or the politics of slavery and cotton.  Now that sort of thing fascinates me. 

I am sorry that Catton died before Ken Burns' PBS series.  I think that he would have made a good counterpoint to Shelby Foote, since they both wrote about the war from the perspective of  the average soldier, even in this book whose main character is the (in all probability) greatest American soldier.  In all his books Catton wrote from the perspective of the Northern soldier while Foote wrote from the perspective of the Southern soldier.

I had forgotten how eloquent Catton was and reading him now was a pleasant re-introduction to that eloquence.    His explanation of what the war was really about and the way that was expressed, haltingly in an incomplete and almost crippled way by those in the war is incredible.

One example of this is Catton's discussion of Grant's famous Order No. 11 banning Jew from his department.  He points out that cotton trading, corruption and the place of freed slaves in society at the time were inexorably related. and all were involved in the issuing of  that very order.
[R]elated not merely because cotton was common to both of them, but because Grant and most other men were children of their time and, without thinking, used derisive words denying human dignity to whole groups of people whose right to claim human dignity was what was chiefly at stake in this war.  [Grant] could thoughtlessly say "Jews" when he meant scheming fixers who would have sold their own mother for gain, and he could say ""Darkeys" . .  when he meant pathetically displaced men and women who were struggling upward to the point where people might recognize their decency as human beings....When he wrote his Memoirs Grant chuckled mildly about the frontier schoolrooms in which, as a child, he had been taught over and over again that "a noun is the name of a thing."  He was grappling with the names of things now, and the grapple was like Jacob's, wrestling with the angel, for the names were important.  Far ahead of him . . . dependent in a strange way on this very campaign, there might be a day when people of good will, like himself, would use no abraded epithets but would simply talk about human beings.
I think of the time of the writing and publication of this book, which was at the high point of the American republic and early days of the civil rights movement where American ideals seemed finally to be about to be realized in the then and now has to have impacted the writing and the outlook of the writer in this work. 

I really can't recommend this book highly enough for its style and for its explanation of the development of what for want of a better words the American character.  Grant was central to the development of that character and was as good an example of what an American could be, could become and the very limitations on that character.

4 comments:

Cujo359 said...

Looks like you found something to keep yourself busy. The Civil War is a seminal moment in our history, and Grant, I suppose, is one of its fathers. If I ever get the reading done that I'm supposed to be doing, I should check out that trilogy.

I think of the time of the writing and publication of this book, which was at the high point of the American republic and early days of the civil rights movement

They seem like heady days, in retrospect. Of course, there was plenty wrong at the time, some of which has been corrected since then. Racism, sexism, even religious bigotry seemed worse back then. I'd say we were over McCarthyism, but I doubt we'll ever really be...

Still, it was a time when we did things, and when America actually meant something special.

lawguy said...

My thought was that things were changing and they seemed to be changing for the better. Not that there wasn't a lot of push back, but for a high school student in the mid-west it seemed that anything was possible.

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