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“I begin to discern the profile of my death.”

This account of Grant’s long dying, of the lucid lingering in which he composed his Personal Memoirs, made me think many times of Memoirs of Hadrian – especially the short opening section in which the emperor begins to discern, after a life of warfare and perilous travels, his quiet, domestic death, and in which he describes the abdications of his failing body:

 To give up riding is a greater sacrifice still…if the choice of my condition had been left to me I would have decided for that of a centaur. Between Borysthenes and me relations were of almost mathematical precision; he obeyed me as if I were his own brain, not his master. Have I ever obtained as much from a man? … My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man. He shared my every impetus; he knew perfectly, and perhaps better than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will.

“Horses seem to understand Ulysses,” said his mother, perhaps hinting only horses could. From his cadet years he was acknowledged the finest horseman in the army, and the mastery of large, spirited, unmanageable-looking mounts was one of the few personal demonstrations this shy man allowed himself. Tellingly, he chose to smoke his doctor-decreed last cigar with a Hudson Valley horse breeder, on a fine autumn day, while they were out having a look at the colts.

Flood’s book is blandly written and strangely organized, but the latter chapters quote a wealth of contextual detail. The get-well letters from schoolchildren, the condolence telegrams from former rebel generals and lodges of Confederate veterans, all the funereal logistics of Manhattan crowd control and mourning fashion (by 4:00pm on the day Grant died Bloomingdale’s was sold out of black crepe; the New York Times noted that “in the narrow streets and the tall crowded buildings where the poor make their homes the sign of grief is nearly on every door post…in many cases it is nothing but a narrow strip of cheap black cambric fluttering in the breeze from the topmost story of some tenement house or a small flag bordered with a piece of folded crepe from a wornout bonnet”) allow the reader to sense the nature and magnitude of Grant’s fame in the twenty years he lived after the war. He was the foremost living symbol of peaceful unity – the nation was locally fraught, but generally at peace; its unity mocked, beset, but not fatally endangered by labor strife in the North, racial terrorism in the South, and, out West, amid the piecemeal settlement, sporadic warfare and nigh-genocidal dispossession. A society confused but mostly functional, its injustice and inequality somehow borne, its ideals regularly betrayed but still vital enough to inspire immigrants and the young, its citizens ever-hopeful of adapting, rising, overcoming; a country always, said Bernard DeVoto, in the process of becoming something it had not been; a welter of souls, strangely channeled, by force, by whim, and deposited somewhere.The semblance of community, and frequently the substance.

The national tributes Grant received in his illness, especially those from old rebels, gave a calm to the “Conclusion” of his Personal Memoirs.  “The expressions of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people.” A prospect of felicitous integration – what he called “a commingling of the people.” The styles of Grant and Yourcenar’s Hardrian intersect at a lyrical legalism, a civic sublimity:

Prior to the rebellion the great mass of the people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth. In fact an immense majority of the whole people did not feel secure against coming to want should they move among entire strangers …This is all changed now … The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of the people that…the country has filled up “from the centre all around to the sea”; railroads connect the two oceans and all parts of the interior; maps, nearly perfect, of every part of the country are now furnished the student of geography.

 

I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace  should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveler might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture…

Yourcenar said that in her wartime hiatus from work on the novel, the emperor, “the most official yet the most hidden form of all,” had gradually emerged from Hadrian’s other selves – “The fact of having lived in a world that was toppling all around us taught me the importance of the Prince.” Grant’s memory was for a long time obscured in his nation’s era of general peace, when unity was assumed, order assured, and rebels romantic; what does his memory mean for us now that the Federal political system of the United States is again broken, again at an impasse?

 

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