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Book review: “General Grant by Matthew Arnold, with a Rejoinder by Mark Twain,” edited by John Y. Simon

In 1867, the British poet Matthew Arnold published his 37-line lyric poem “Dover Beach,” which concludes with this stanza:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

It’s a strikingly downbeat insight into life. Yes, life can seem various, beautiful and new. But, behind that curtain, there is no joy, love, light, certainty, peace or ease from pain.

Instead, we stand “as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

War as chaos — a metaphor for life.

Twenty years later, in a two-part article published on Murray’s Magazine in England, Arnold used some 13,000 words to review — and promote — the recently published “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.”

Grant, the victor of the Civil War and a former American president, was bankrupt and suffering from terminal cancer when, racing death, he wrote the “Memoirs” to ensure his wife had money on which to live. He died on July 23, 1885, five days after completing the manuscript.

At the suggestion of a letter-writer, Arnold, who had met Grant a couple of times, read the “Memoirs” because he felt that Grant was a man who deserved respect and attention. And he was surprised at how good the book was. So impressed that he wanted to proselytize on its behalf.

Granted, the poet, more than a bit priggish, the poet said, “I found in them a man, strong, resolute and business-like, as Grant appeared to me when I first saw him; a man with no magical personality, touched by no divine light and giving out none. I found a language all astray in its use of will and shall, should and would, an English employing the verb to conscript and the participle conscripting, and speaking in a despatch to the Secretary of War of having badly whipped the enemy; an English without charm and without high breeding.”

(I think, by “without charm,” Arnold meant that Grant’s prose lacked a poetic musicality. Or something like that.)

Still, the poet didn’t let those supposed faults get in the way of his enjoyment and respect for the “Memoirs.”

“But at the same time,” he wrote, “I found a man of sterling good-sense as well as of the firmest resolution; a man, withal, humane, simple, modest; from all restless self-consciousness and desire for display perfectly free; never boastful where he himself was concerned, and where his nation was concerned seldom boastful, boastful only in circumstances where nothing but high genius or high training, I supposed, can save an American from being boastful. I found the language straightforward, nervous, firm, possessing in general the high merit of saying clearly in the fewest possible words what had to be said, and saying it, frequently, with shrewd and unexpected turns of expression.”

As a result, Arnold thought the English public should know about the “Memoirs” and read them, and he spent the bulk of his lengthy two-part article quoting from and paraphrasing Grant’s text.

That article was reprinted in the U.S., and a good number of prominent Americans, including Mark Twain who published the “Memoirs,” were up in arms at the negative things that Arnold wrote about Grant and Americans in general. Hence, Twain’s “rejoinder” from a speech in Hartford.

In 1966 — 99 years after Arnold’s article appeared — Grant scholar John Y. Simon put it together with Twain’s “rejoinder” and an introduction of his own in a compact book of 58 pages. In 1995, the little tome was reissued by The Kent State University Press.

What strikes me today isn’t Arnold’s carping and the hub-bub it created at the time.

What strikes me instead is the admiration that Arnold had for the book and for the man who wrote it. He went out of his way to produce this review. No editor asked him to write it. It was his own idea.

Despite his complaint that Grant’s writing lacked “high breeding,” Arnold was a fan.

And that brings me back to “Dover Beach.”

Most of the reading public has a misconception about autobiographies and memoirs. The general sense is that someone, usually famous, sits down and writes the story of his or her life, and that’s it.

But, as Herbert Leibowitz makes clear in his fascinating 1989 book “Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography,” telling one’s life story requires…fabrication. Indeed, he writes of “autobiography’s renegade power — and its multiple forms of self-disclosure and self-concealment.”

Leave aside the out-and-out liars, like James Frey, and you still have autobiographers and memoirists who, to tell their story, have to make literary decisions. What to leave in? What to leave out? What to stress? What to ignore.

The most important question: Who is the person at the center of the story?

In producing an autobiography or a memoir, a writer has to create a persona around whom the book revolves. In his examination of life stories, Liebowitz looks at writers who took vastly different approaches to the creation of that persona — Ben Franklin, Gertrude Stein, Jane Addams, Richard Wright, among others.

The persona that Grant creates in his “Memoirs” — a clear-headed, sensitive, alert, humble and confident leader of soldiers — seems to be pretty much the same persona that comes across in the dispatches he wrote during the Civil War.

Yet, here’s the thing: The war that Grant describes in his “Memoirs” is the antithesis of the war Arnold describes in “Dover Beach.”

In “Dover Beach,” the armies are ignorant — leaderless, certainly. They are clashing, one against the other, in the night — i.e., in darkness, which is to say: without policy or purpose, without thought or ideal.

That’s the life that Arnold sees behind the screen of perceived beauty and freshness. Life as chaotic war.

Grant, on the other hand, is presenting actual war, not as chaos but as a puzzle. He’s good at solving that puzzle.

Fear isn’t the over-riding reality, nor confusion, not blindness.

Grant and his army are fighting for ideals, as are the Southern soldiers, albeit misguided to Grant’s mind. There is a reason soldiers die. There are leaders, like him, who make decisions and control, to some extent, at least, events.

The clarity of Grant’s prose gives the sense that war makes sense. It’s not chaos. It’s not mystery. It’s a problem to be solved, and, in his career as a soldier, he solved those sort of problems well.

As in “Dover Beach,” war in the “Memoirs” is also a metaphor for life — but a much different metaphor. It’s a metaphor that says living is a problem to be solved, and it can be solved.

I wonder if any of this occurred to Arnold when he spent so much time reading the “Memoirs,” thinking about them and writing about them.

Life as chaos or as a solvable puzzle?

Like Grant, Arnold was born in 1822. He died in 1888, a year after publishing his review of the “Memoirs.”

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Charline Smink Posted August 14, 2011 1:57 am

    I’m a blogger myself so I know how hard it is sometimes to produce a post that would make people read it to the end. Well, I read this article twice lol

  • Patrick T. Reardon Posted August 14, 2011 4:03 am

    Charline — Thanks much for your kind comment. Where can I read your blog? Pat

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