Friday, March 8, 2013

Ike and Grant

Before writing Ike: An American Hero, biographer Michael Korda wrote a book about Ulysses S. Grant, and he still had Grant on his mind when writing about David D. Eisenhower. I count at least 17 references to Grant in the Eisenhower biography, most of them comparisons between the Civil War general and the World War II general. He describes Ike as "the toughest, most experienced, most formidable, and most realistic American commander" since Grant.

In a reference to another Civil War general, Korda compares British General Bernard Montgomery to George McClellan, whom Lincoln described as having "a case of the slows." Like McClellan, Monty liked to have his troops fully prepared and at full strength before going into battle, which meant the enemy had time to get fully prepared, too. Despite being brilliant at strategy, Monty tended to take his time achieving his objectives. Like Grant, Eisenhower preferred to attack before the enemy was ready, even if his own forces were less than fully prepared.

Among the many comparisons to Grant, Korda says the two retired generals both "aimed for simplicity and simple fact" in their war memoirs. "As a result," he writes, "Crusade in Europe was, and remains, one of the clearest and least opinionated books to come out of World War II, and by far the least self-exculpatory and least judgmental." Korda says Eisenhower reread Grant's memoirs before beginning to write his own.

In his commentary about the two memoirs, Korda makes an interesting claim. He calls Grant's memoirs "perhaps the greatest nonfiction book in American literature." I have never read Grant's literary work, but I wonder, could Korda be right? Certainly I have read many favorable references to Grant's memoirs. I recall that Grant died soon after he completed writing them.

Lists of great American novels are often compiled, with Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn often ranked at the top. I don't recall ever seeing a list of the greatest American nonfiction books, however. In college literature classes I can remember reading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, but nothing else in nonfiction. If you were compiling a list of the best, surely Twain would be represented there, too, with works like Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi. Books such as Silent Spring and Up From Slavery might also be on it. Grant's Personal Memoirs may belong there, too.

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