When I was a kid my brothers and I read a lot of books about history. I suppose because I grew up with brothers (I have four sisters but they are a good deal younger, when I was a kid it was just me and two brothers) who were interested in things like war and settling the west and cowboys and Indians and all that stuff, I just went along with it. There were a lot of comic books in our house about those subjects. We watched television programs about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. We went on school trips to Gettysburg which was a few hours away. Consequently, over the course of years, certain names loomed large in my pantheon of heroes.
As an adult I can't say I thought much about them until a little over a year ago when I decided to write The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt. The title story of that collection is about four orphaned brothers who come to Pennsylvania and wind up fighting in the Union Army as part of the 42nd Pennsylvania, a.k.a. The Bucktails. I started doing a lot of research and many names of those old heroes came up. For awhile I was mostly reading books by various authors with big reputations as Civil War scholars. Then in one book the author included a rather lengthy excerpt from the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.
I don't know why I had never thought of it before, but it suddenly struck me that I could read the real, actual, authentic words set down by the people who I had, up to that time, only been reading about. I discovered that Amazon offered both volumes of Grant's memoirs for Kindle for 99¢. I immediately downloaded them and started reading. And I was sucked in. I had to keep reminding myself that these were the words that Grant himself wrote. Some of his stories were so charming—how he almost drowned himself by trying to board a ship without disturbing the crew, and his utter awe at seeing hundreds of acres of Texas landscape covered with wild mustangs. To say I fell in love is an understatement. I couldn't stop reading.
When I finished the book—teary-eyed because I knew those last words were written when he only had a few weeks to live, that he was in unbearable pain and forced himself to stay alive just to finish the book so his wife and children would have an income. His publisher, Mark Twain, writes of what an agony it was to see the old lion, nothing but skin and bones, wrapped in blankets, doggedly writing those last few chapters. The book became the best-selling book America had ever seen, eclipsing sales of all Twain's books, but Grant never lived to see that.
After I finished my book, I kept thinking about the thrill of reading such a great man's last words. So, for pennies, I downloaded George Washington's Journal, which was rather dull but still exciting to read his actual words. I then read The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (he spends more time bitching about shoveling snow than almost anything else and makes the astute observation that he'd better find someone to marry or he is going to wind up in the poorhouse.) I then read Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography and was, once again, thrilled and charmed to see the world through his eyes. It included the information that he was pretty sure his famous charge up San Juan Hill was greatly mythic because he charged the wrong hill.
I really don't know how to explain it but I find such a thrill in reading these memoirs. Maybe because I grew up admiring these men and, in my kid's brain, they were sort of fictional characters on the level of Superman and Batman. Now as an adult, they are not only real, but also writers which is something I can relate to.
Recently I read Gore Vidal's Burr. I'd been meaning to read it for years and when Amazon offered it for Kindle for $1.99 I grabbed it. I had just finished reading a biography of Rachel Jackson, Andrew Jackson's wife, who died before she could become First Lady. Burr is an epic, monolithic book filled with color, drama, gossip, snark, and history, with an ending so touching it took me completely by surprise. And, though it is fiction, it stirred in me the desire to go back to reading more first-hand accounts. I wanted to spend more time listening to distinguished voices from the past.
I have long believed it is always a mistake to confuse the magic with the magician. It is too easy to say this one was a murderer, and that one was a despot, and another one was an utter cad. Those things may be true, but when I listen to their voices, I hear something else—I hear people trying to do the best they can with what they have available to them. And, yes, sometimes that is not good enough.
As I flipped through my Kindle (which has nearly 1500 books on it), I came across The Memoirs of W.T. Sherman, Grant's good friend. Sherman has always seemed an enigmatic figure to me—both a charming, likable man who instituted a practice of storytelling evenings when he was the headmaster at a boys' school, and a dark, tortured, and possibly mad, military leader. I started reading and one of the first boyhood memories I encountered was Sherman's story of how, as a plebe on his way to West Point, he visited Washington for the first time. Out for a stroll to see the sights early one morning, he walked past the White House and there in the driveway saw Andrew Jackson—old, skeletal, still carrying two bullets in his body, wrapped in a blanket—pacing up and down. Sherman says he stood for an hour, his face pressed to the fence, watching the President pace. These are the stories I love.
Thanks for reading.