Heroes and Great Men
By Dwip June 7, 2010, 4:10 pm Comments (4) RSS Feed for this post

Most of you who have seen my room in the past few years have noticed an astonishing array of squirrels, chickens, rabbits, velocirabbits, Darth Fuzzy, and Megatokyo strips, which are the sort of thing one puts up when one is in one’s twenties and does such things.

The other thing currently above my desk, hiding a little above the printer by that amusing picture of the penguin and the rabbit cheerleaders, is an old photograph of Ulysses S. Grant, which I am informed was taken during the battle of Cold Harbor, which he lost.

I’ve said a fair bit about all the other stuff on my wall in the past, and many of you were there so it scarcely bears repeating. Today, I want to say a little bit about that picture of Grant, spurred by two posts made at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place. One on the sort of guy Grant was, the other on the sort of guy Grant became to the rest of us. They’re part of a longer series at TNC’s about Grant and the Civil War in general and if you have any pretenses at literacy and humanity you should be reading them.

One of the questions asked in that second post is “Why does Grant interest you?” I’m going to tell you, but I’m going to be fairly roundabout about the thing, so bear with me.

Back in the days when such things were of some importance to me, I always used to think of myself as not having any heroes, in the sense of somebody you want to emulate. I remember reading things or seeing things or whatever, and some guy would be talking about how they wanted to be like some other guy, and I’d just shake my head, because I defined myself more by anti-heroes – the people I did NOT want to emulate. Over the years I built up a tidy store of people I didn’t want to be, but nobody I really wanted to be.

I don’t say that to sound like some kind of teenage rebel, because those of you who knew me as a teenager know that I was one of the worst teenage rebels in the history of teenage rebeldom. I mean that to say that instead that I knew pretty early how I wanted a lot of things to go, but needed the object lessons on how things ought not to go, and not wanting to go to the trouble of making all those mistakes myself, outsourced and observed a fair number of them.

Too, and here I come back around a little closer to my point, I was always that guy, even as a kid, who spent all his time reading about military men and politicians, and if you know anything about military men and politicians, it’s that they often accomplish great things while obliterating themselves personally. It’s easy to find things to admire about guys like this – Augustus’ organizational skills, Washington’s leadership, Marius’ ability to do both with added courage – but unless you’re going to run out and be the father of your country, it’s hard to necessarily want to emulate them in their totality, unless perhaps your name on the internet is Marechal.

Which brings me around to the Civil War and to Grant. On some level, and I suppose you can blame Ken Burns for this, I’ve always been drawn in some fashion to the war as a historical event, and to the central figures in that war as people, in part because in many ways it’s a much more human sort of event than most of the others I’ve been drawn to. It’s hard, for instance, to wring at this great date the humanity out of the Roman civil wars. With World War II you become caught up in the totality and the awesomeness of the thing, the sheer larger than lifeness of it all. The great figures of the Revolution are human in their ways, and you can get a sense at a distance of them as both people and great figures, but somehow they’re always at a distance. You can’t really get into Washington or Jefferson or Adams without in someway being overawed by what they accomplished.

I’ve never really got that feeling about the Civil War and its figures. Yes, the whole struggle is utterly larger than life, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and great battles and armies and all that, but at the same time, you look at the people in it and they’re quite familiar. Lincoln, you know, is Lincoln, the greatest President of the United States, savior of the Union, etc, etc. But he’s also just Abe Lincoln. Small town guy, loves his wife, likes to play with his kids, hang out and BS with folks, that sort of thing. With the exception of the save the Union bit, I’ve known people like that.

Which brings me at last to Grant. It’s not so much that Grant is a hero of mine and somebody I want to emulate, so much as I often feel as if Grant is sort of my alter ego, somebody who I am, like it or not, pretty similar to. In one of the interviews on the Civil War DVD, there’s this fantastic line by Stanley Crouch on Grant:

“…then, the character of Grant. This guy’s a bum, essentially, he’s a failure! …Until the time to not be a failure comes along, and then he commences to show something. So that’s that other thing that’s in there too, is that these people who have been underestimated, who you didn’t expect much of in these surprising ways turn out to be what they are.”

Which is to say that Grant, pre-war, failed at just about everything he did except his marriage, drank a whole hell of a lot, and then decided it was time to not be that guy, and did his thing. Even then, he stumbled a fair bit – made some shocking mistakes, such as that bit at Cold Harbor that got a lot of people killed for no reason, made more than a few decisions later in life he was better off not making.

Without going into the whole history of the thing, I can relate to that, and I think a lot of us can. Not all that great at getting by, maybe, but somewhere in there, when the moment comes to get by, you do so, and well. Grant’s moment happened to be the winning of the greatest struggle in American history. Yours and mine maybe not so much, but there’s an object lesson in there about looking at yourself, and looking at other people.

Which I guess is the long way of saying that I agree with TNC – US Grant is kind of like Peter Parker for history nerds.

History and Politics, Random and Ravings Comments (4) Trackback URL for this post RSS Feed for this post
Comments on Heroes and Great Men
avatar Comment by Cynic #1
June 7, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Thanks, Dwip, for an exceptional answer to an off-hand question.

avatar Comment by Dwip #2
June 8, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Glad you liked it. Thanks for providing the reason.

avatar Comment by Regina #3
June 8, 2010 at 9:04 pm

And who was it who was like “Oh man, this postcard of Grant, you should totally buy it!” Huh?


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March 12, 2013 at 5:47 am

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