(October 18, 2017) Nearly all authors recognize the importance of a book’s first line as do most readers. We can, for example, often identify a previously read book merely by seeing its first line. Examples might include, It was the best of times, the worst of times… and All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Finally, It was a Monday in Washington January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate. It is with the conceded significance of the first line that I was surprised by Ron Chernow’s choice.
Provided below is a guest post by Joseph Rose who is the author of Grant Under Fire. Joe shares his reaction to the “wrong-headed” first sentence of Chernow’s new Grant biography.
The opening line of Ron Chernow’s new biography on Grant—“Even as other civil war generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print”—seems positively wrong-headed. It plays on the rather false image of the modest Ulysses. Instead, his staffer, Adam Badeau, began Grant’s military history in 1865. Grant later told Badeau:
“Your first volume was prepared in my office, while you occupied the position [of] an officer on my staff, with the temporary rank of Col. This gave you [pay three grades beyond your actual rank,] access to papers and documents that other writers at the time could not have convenient access to. You also had the assistance of several very intelligent staff officers to aid you in hunting up data, relating insidents[sic], furnishing military terms with which you were not then familia[r] &c.
Your second and third volumnes[sic], were prepared abroad while you were holding office under the government. A great deal of time was spent by my staff officers in furnishing you information that you called for from time to time, and in some instances in sending you books and papers from the Archives in Washington at the risk of their being lost. You had possession of a copy of the records of my headquarters,—my work really—kept for my special use, until you were through with your work. I also read through every chapter of your book before the latter appeared before the public. I knew what care had been taken to get the facts of history correct. and corrected the facts.”
Other books on Grant coming out in 1868 with the first volume of Badeau’s work are those of Albert Richardson, Charles A. Dana and James H. Wilson, and Henry Deming. All were “carefully guarded against any expression which could be used against Grant by the politicians,” in the upcoming presidential election. Another campaign biography that year was penned by James G. Wilson.
If “other civil war generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity,” Ulysses S. Grant did the same, but took somewhat longer in doing so. Throughout the war and after, he befriended journalists and authors who praised him without qualification. And, in his Personal Memoirs, Grant subtly built himself up, while disparaging the people he didn’t like. Very often, when doing so, he stole the laurels from those who actually deserved it to place on his own head. All of this, and more, belies Chernow’s claim of modesty.