Review 1491: Grant

Ron Chernow has become one of my three favorite biographers, along with Doris Kearns Goodwin for political figures and Claire Tomalin for literary ones. Although both Grant and Alexander Hamilton are of a length that could seem forbidding to some readers, they are unfailingly readable and interesting.

Chernow’s main thrust is that Grant has long been misrepresented and his legacy misunderstood. I can testify to this by my personal experience in school, where he was characterized in exactly the terms spelled out in this book. We were told that he was a drunk whose presidency was riddled with corruption. His contribution to the Civil War was virtually ignored.

Poor Grant! Chernow sets us all straight. Yes, Grant had a problem with drink. He, in fact, got drunk after a small amount of liquor. This was a problem he fought all his adult life and conquered during his presidency. After he was made to resign from the army early in his career for being drunk on duty (a claim Grant, who was very truthful, said was not true), enemies found it convenient to claim he was drunk on many occasions when he had not touched a drop.

Chernow’s coverage of the Civil War makes very clear how much the nation has to thank Grant for its end, after a series of generals got nowhere against Lee. In fact, in his time, Grant was considered one of the greatest generals of all time, whereas his legacy has been disparaged, with prominent Southern historians claiming his success was only because the North had more resources available than the South.

The implication I always took away from Grant’s presidency was that he must have been corrupt if his administration was. First, administrations had been rife with corruption since Jackson’s. Second, although Grant believed in the patronage system, the idea of awarding positions because of merit was actually a new one, and Grant did award many positions for that reason. Last, like many very honest men, Grant tended to trust too easily, with unfortunate results.

Although many of the positive results of Grant’s administration were nullified by subsequent changes when Reconstruction was eliminated, Chernow documents many benefits for black Americans and in Grant’s attempts to help Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others. Grant’s administration gave the vote to black men and wiped out the first incarnation of the Ku Kluxers.

Chernow has written a rivetting book that has convinced me that Grant is one of our most underrated and misrepresented presidents. He was a great man.

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Review 1470: Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens

In Queens of the Conquest, Alison Weir does what she does best—constructs a well-researched biography of a notable Medieval woman—in this case, four of them. Queens of the Conquest is the first of four volumes called England’s Medieval Queens, which will detail as much as is known of the lives of these queens. This volume begins with Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and ends approximately 100 years later with the death of Empress Maud, the mother of Henry II.

Weir’s premise in this volume is that the early Medieval queens of England were not removed from the governance of the kingdom. She has thoroughly proved this premise with documentation of their charters to award lands, their stints at being regent, and their attendance at cabinet meetings. Of the three women, only Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry’s second wife, seems to have taken a more traditional role.

Although the stories of the first two queen’s lives are largely dependent upon reading endless charters and religious devotions, which could get a little tiresome, Weir has faithfully documented what is known of the women’s lives. She does this in an eminently readable style while still backing the facts up with source material and footnotes. These materials include appendixes with the text of extant letters.

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Review 1466: Vanishing Cornwall

Over the years, I have read most of the novels written by Daphne du Maurier, but when I made up my current Classics Club list, I came across this work of nonfiction. It’s the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

Vanishing Cornwall is a little hard to describe. Du Maurier made her principal residence in Cornwall for many years, and I guess I would call this book an appreciation.

She starts out by traveling around the area with her son to take photographs from each of the Hundreds of Cornwall. So, the book is in small part a travel book. But as it progresses from region to region, aside from lyrical descriptions and photos of the scenery, du Maurier includes stories from history and folk lore. Toward the end of the book, she switches to chapters on specific topics, like fishing or free-trading, associated with Cornwall.

She ends with a conservation message, at the time a concern to preserve the area’s beauty while finding some way to help support the locals. I have never been to Cornwall, but I would imagine that some of what she has to say is out of date now, as it was even between 1967, when the book was first published, and 1980, the date of my edition, which switched out the original black and white photos for colored ones and added an epilogue. She does tend to romanticize some subjects, and her assertions such as the one that King Arthur did actually exist are a little more in doubt now.

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Review 1452: The Library Book

The Library Book is part history, part biography, part true crime, and part journalism. It centers on the Los Angeles Central Library, an architecturally renowned building that famously burned in 1986, becoming the largest library fire in the history of the United States.

Orlean begins with her own impetus for wanting to write about libraries, her memories of library trips with her mother when she was young. Then she starts meandering through the history of the L. A. library, intermingling her chapters about that and some of its significant librarians with chapters about her experiences and findings during her interviews and visits. Yet, all of this hangs together with the story of the alleged arsonist of the library and stories about the fire and the rebuilding of the library.

This is a fascinating book that resonates with my love of libraries. Not only does it look to the past of this great library, but it examines the future of all libraries and how they are working to address the problems and opportunities that they see.

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Review 1335: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Cover for Killers of the Flower MoonDavid Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon details a past that was once infamous but now almost forgotten except in Osage country. In the 1920’s, the Osage nation in Oklahoma was the richest population per capita in the United States. This phenomena was a result of wise decisions by the tribal leaders during the 19th century land grab by the whites. They voluntarily moved from their homelands, purchasing land in Oklahoma that they thought white men would deem worthless. Then oil was discovered on their property. Because the nation had purchased the property, it couldn’t be taken back.

However, the federal government, in its infinite wisdom, deemed the Osage unfit to handle their own money. So, they appointed white guardians for them. As you can imagine, there were many eager to cheat these people out of their headrights, as were called their shares of the tribal fortune.

The Osage began dying. Grann centers much of his book on Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of Ernest Burkhart. One by one, her family started dying. First, her sister, Annie, was found shot in the head. Then her mother, Lizzie, died of a mysterious illness, believed by many to be poison. When her sister Rita’s husband, Bill Smith, tried to investigate, he and his wife and servant girl were killed one night when their house exploded. Other Osage were dying, too, and investigators either came up with nothing or were themselves murdered.

As the FBI was in its infancy and trying to figure out its own jurisdictional powers, new director J. Edgar Hoover decided that the Osage murders, which were becoming infamous as indicators of failure and corruption, would be good ones to solve. So, he sent out a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate.

Grann follows their investigation, and it is a fascinating one. This is a shameful period in our history that should not be forgotten. Grann goes further than the FBI, though, by looking into other deaths that were not investigated.

This book tells a mesmerizing story about a shocking time not so far in the past.

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Review 1321: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Cover for Samuel PepysYears ago, I attempted to read Samuel Pepys’s diary, but I didn’t make much headway. However, I was reading it without any context. Now that I’ve read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Pepys, I am interested in trying it again.

For one thing, I was not aware that Pepys worked his way up, by his great energy and organizational skills, from a poor beginning to an eminent position in the British admiralty. He was responsible for setting up many of the procedures used today. In the diary’s beginning, he is just a lowly clerk who seems to go out drinking a lot.

But Tomalin’s admiration is for Pepys’s unstinting truthfulness, even when it makes him look bad, as well as the literary and historical value of the diary. In short, he was a marvelous writer who documented significant events in a tumultuous period of British history.

Tomalin’s talent as a biographer is in giving her readers a true feeling for the personality of her subject. Pepys was a pleasure seeker, a womanizer, and not always an honest man, but he was curious, cultured, highly intelligent, dedicated, and faithful to his patrons. Although he had a poor opinion of both Charles II and James II, he served them faithfully, even when it was against his best interests. Pepys turns out to be a very interesting person.

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Day 1097: Alexander Hamilton

Cover for Alexander HamiltonBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think it’s ever taken me so long to read a book as it did Alexander Hamilton, despite it being a fascinating biography. Although it did not seem as if it went into too much detail, as some biographies do, it is certainly long.

Thanks to the Broadway show, which is based on this book, people have become a little more conscious of the accomplishments of Hamilton. Unfortunately, he was such a controversial figure that his enemies managed to blacken his legacy for many, many years.

A man of astounding intelligence, Alexander Hamilton sprang from a difficult heritage as an illegitimate son of a man who was a failure at business and deserted his common-law wife and their children. From this beginning, Hamilton expended his own formidable efforts, eventually to become one of the most powerful men in the new United States.

Hamilton was apparently not at all tactful and earned himself many enemies through speaking truth to power. He and Washington had a close and affectionate relationship that began when he was Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, but he counted among his enemies James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, the New York Clinton family, Aaron Burr, and to a lesser extent, James Madison. John Adams hated him. None of these men emerge from this book looking well, although Hamilton certainly had his faults.

I think almost anyone interested in history will find this book fascinating, even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in the Revolutionary period. Alexander Hamilton was an amazing man who has been largely robbed of his proper legacy.

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Day 1075: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

One of the most enjoyable features of Bill Bryson’s travel books is his curiosity about everything and his willingness to go off on wild tangents. At Home is his attempt to inform himself and us about the objects of ordinary life, using his own home as a base for his explorations. But really, it’s his excuse to go off on tangent after tangent.

For example, his chapter on the cellar—he organizes his book by the rooms of the house—takes us to the building of the Erie Canal which takes us to the development of hydraulic cement then to the use of building materials in the United States versus England, a short history of Sir John Nash’s career, and so on. In fact, the contents of this particular chapter seem to have little to do with the actual room, except for the cement.

In reference to other rooms he discusses the history of various foodstuffs, the use of certain pieces of furniture, cemeteries, the history of how human mortality is treated, and even the history of gynecology. As always with Bryson, his comments can be amusing and the observations enthralling. If you like learning interesting little facts, this is the book for you. My edition was the illustrated one, which is full of fascinating photos and other pictures.

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Day 1049: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Cover for Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesIt was interesting to contrast Lafayette in the Somewhat United States with the other book about the American revolution I read recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition. While Valiant Ambition concentrated on what made Benedict Arnold a traitor, this book focuses on the French contribution to the war, embodied particularly by the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Marquis himself
The Marquis himself

In some ways, both books cover the same ground, particularly the woeful state of the Continental army. Several times, infusions of cash from the French saved it from utter ruin. But the writing style and the intent of these books are different. Vowell’s book is written in an informal, sprightly style with many references to current popular culture. Also, Lafayette’s impetuous, affectionate character comes through strongly.

This book is a slightly quirky homage to Lafayette’s contribution to our country, featuring side-trips to various battlefields and landmarks as well as a cogent, irreverent discussion of the events. It is a fun read.

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Day 1028: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Cover for Empty MansionsI’ve been sitting here trying to understand what makes Empty Mansions such an interesting book and what drew me to the topic in the first place. I’m still wondering about that, although the topic was interesting enough to make Bill Dedman’s NBC investigative series popular. (I did not see it.) Perhaps the fascination is with abundant wealth, perhaps one with eccentric personalities. Perhaps it is a sort of voyeurism.

Huguette Clark was the youngest daughter of W. A. Clark, the Copper King, a man who for Samuel Clemens, fairly or unfairly, represented the Gilded Age. Although W. A. Clark’s name is not familiar to us like that of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, he was right up there in terms of wealth.

This book tells the story of his life along with that of his daughter, Huguette. An artistic woman but shy, she gradually removed herself from the public eye. Although she owned several beautiful and palatial homes and apartments, she first became almost a shut-away in her New York apartment and then lived in a small hospital room for the last years of her life. Of further interest is the charge that some of Huguette’s caregivers and employees took advantage of her dependence on them to drain her estate. Her estate is currently involved in a suit between the legatees of her will and 19 of her relatives.

The book, written by Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin who corresponded with Huguette, does a pretty good job of remaining impartial on this point. In any case, I found the story of Huguette’s unusual life to be fascinating.

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