Review: Katy Simpson Smith on the wartime letters of General and Mrs. Grant

The Grant family at the summer White House in Long Branch, New Jersey. From left: Julia, Ullyses, Nellie, Jesse, and Buck (Ullyses Jr.); Fred is at West Point. From “Ulysses S. Grant, Father,” on Brooks D. Simpson’s blog, Crossroads

After Ulysses S. Grant’s death, a widowed Julia Dent Grant suggested to Mark Twain, publisher of her husband’s memoirs, that he also publish his letters to her, from their courtship in the 1840s to Ulysses’ deathbed instructions in 1885. What did she want us to see? What does Ron Chernow, author of last year’s celebrated biography of Grant (now in paperback), want us to see when he fulfilled this request 150 years later? Missing from My Dearest Julia: The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to His Wife, the volume he recently published with Library of America, are several more intimate letters that appeared in a Library of America’s broader selection of Grant’s letters of 1990, in which Ulysses is wracked with concern over Julia’s confinement and labor, or fussing over locks of her hair, or describing “soldiering” as “an obsticle” to the fulfillment of his love. (Likely Julia, guarding his legacy, would not have chosen those either.) But when a new selection is presented, one must ask what window we’re being asked to look through.

The Grant on view here is charming, determined, homesick, stoic, a little needy. He is attached to the reciprocity of correspondence, punctiliously counting Julia’s letters. “So far I have not had the scrape of a pen from you,” he writes from Camp Yates in 1861. He loves his wife and children, from a distance, dearly. “Little Jess must talk like a book now, dont he?” he asks about his three-year-old son. “Do you think Jess would know me?” He even navigates her slaveholding family’s disapproval; one cousin, in a profane rant, swears the Illinois Republican will “never be welcom in his house.” Though Ulysses yearns for news from home, he relates such grand adventures—spelunking in the Cacahuamilpa caves in Mexico, attending a show of trained monkeys in New York, bringing the town of Vicksburg to its knees—that one can’t help wondering what Julia could’ve offered in exchange. Her absence in the correspondence leaves an unsettling hole; in a parenthetical aside, Chernow admits in his introduction that “we don’t know why” her letters have disappeared. What we would like letters to do, that memoirs and biographies cannot, is offer a twosidedness, a glimpse into relational exchange. I am this way because you are that way; we are unpacking the world in tandem.

Without the fullness of Chernow’s painstaking and lively biography, the letters become an exercise in finding “my Dearest Julia.” How can we construct a nineteenth-century woman caught in the shadow of a hero? We learn she wasn’t as prompt or effusive a writer as he (some of her letters, indeed, “are rather cross”), she had the wits to manage their knotty financial affairs in his absence, and she reluctantly gave up traditional ideas of stability and the expectation that she could make a steady home, with a steady family. But she could also match his romanticism: in 1853, he thanks her for “the pink leaves upon each of which you say you pressed a sweet kiss.” In Ulysses’ diligence, his careful accounting of military maneuverings and financial challenges, he inadvertently reveals his audience: a woman either imposed upon by a correspondent preoccupied with his own interests, or—as confirmed by Chernow in Grant—genuinely interested in the movements of nations. (A woman whose own memoirs, we should note, were rejected by publishers in her lifetime, though they are as dense with Ulysses anecdotes as his memoirs are near-silent on her.)

In its masculine half, this correspondence lays bare the concerns and exuberances of a man who went on to shape the Republic in critical ways. His focus and optimism as a general confirm Lincoln’s wisdom in relying on him, and his struggles with alcohol, which muddied public opinion, appear in the letters in only brief asides (“We are all well and me as sober as a deacon no matter what is said to the contrary”). But Julia’s absence here leaves us with a half-story. As often as we try to reconstruct a historic figure—through biographies, critical studies, compendiums of correspondence—we are still left with unfillable gaps. In asking what one man’s life meant, we may be dodging history’s great lesson; perhaps what Julia wanted us to see, when she pressed the letters into Twain’s hands, is that Ulysses’ story was never his alone.

The conclusion of an updated thirty-one volume edition of Grant’s complete papers became available digitally last fall, edited by John F. Marszalek, executive director of the Grant papers at Mississippi State University. Marszalek also edited an annotated edition of Grant’s memoirs that appeared last October. A second annotated edition of the memoirs, edited by Elizabeth D. Samet, appeared in September. The Library of Congress has recently made their collection of Grant’s papers available online.

Katy Simpson Smith is the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, and the novels The Story of Land and Sea and Free Men.

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