Book to Read, Events, General, Readings

A President to Wish For

“The Greatest Hero,” —Walt Whitman

In this time of California fires, the Coronavirus quarantine and Trump, I’m desperate for revelation. When my son, Chris, lends me his voluminous biography of our 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant, written by Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Hamilton and Washington, I open it and begin to read. Why not?

I get no further than the very first page when I realize I’m hooked, eager to learn what’s in the 1073 pages remaining.  It’s a bygone era, true, a vastly different life, yet familiar too. Reading about this American president I vaguely recognize from my high school history class, I’m surprised, excited even, to see that here’s someone, strangely enough, I can identify with now.  Someone I wish I knew.

Historical textbooks have portrayed  Ulysses S. Grant’s terms in office as marked by rampant corruption presided over by a president who spoke only on occasion, had  an alcohol problem, little charisma, and was simple-mindedly loyal to duplicitous “friends” in politics.  Reading GRANT however, I discover a singular, sensitive man born in the Midwest of pioneer stock, the “son of an incorruptible small-town braggart” and a silent, beloved mother, an expert horseman, a failure at business while brilliant at military maneuvers, who resigned from the army in disgrace. A foe of slavery.

The very first sentence introduces me to Grant who has just left the office of the Presidency.  It seems Ex-President Grant is unlike so many other presidents who rushed to publish their memoirs as soon as they departed the White House.  No, two-time President Ulysses S. Grant, High Military Commander of the Union Army, who defeated the renown Confederate General Robert E Lee to win the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln, “refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print” and was, in fact, too modest and unpretentious.  As Chernow describes it, Grant was a hero in spite of himself. He hated boasting about himself and his wartime accomplishments.

In the middle paragraph, Chernow fast-forwards to 1883 in post-Civil War New York City, where Grant, no longer president, has a crippling accident getting out of a taxi on a snowy night and ends up being a lifelong invalid with “excruciating pain” and the “agonizing onset of pleurisy coupled with severe rheumatism.”

And still on Page 1, Chernow hints at the financial success Grant longed for finally being realized at the end of his life. Ex-president Grant has partnered with a young brash swindler, Ferdinand Ward, and imagines himself a millionaire who will be able to at last provide support for Julia after he’s gone.  But then . . .and then . . .while. . .after.

Deep into it now, I experience a small, unassuming man who never wanted to go to West Point, who could fall asleep in the middle of a battle and wake up refreshed, and who had the love and loyalty of the huge Union Army of Lincoln. Who Frederick Douglass called, “the protector of my race.” Grant who sought freedom and justice for newly emancipated slaves both as Commander in Chief and later as President, fighting carpetbaggers and the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. There’s been recent controversy around Julia who grew up in a slave state, in a family with slaves, and Grant keeping one slave, William, for a year, which led to Grant’s statue being toppled in San Francisco. But, as I discover on p. 106, “when it came within his power, Grant . . . filed papers, to “hereby manumit, emancipate and set free said William from slavery forever.”

It was revelatory and comfortingly satisfying to me to learn intimate details of this far-sighted, faithful, loving husband and father whose lifelong love affair was with his four children and his wife, Julia, a fascinating, vivacious woman in her own right, who flourished even at the very end of what became his torturous life.

GRANT, a cliff hanger. And it all happens in fascinating detail, written in pristine language.  Somehow it became my life too, embodying my wish for a real president. Now.  For the time being, I’ll settle in with Ron Chernow’s GRANT, imagining the man behind the book. And I’ll vote for the next president on November 3rd. So much for wishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

General, Journal, Readings

Searching for Africa: the Other Barack

Kruger National ParkI’m searching for Africa still and I have been ever since I returned from my three week trip in December 2011. Where before my trip I had no desire to learn about this dark continent, not to mention actually visit it, now I am fascinated with all things African, especially the unknown, deep well of African history in all its diversity, the culture and the stories of Africans past and present, ignored or long buried in those extreme, rich, beautiful and striking landscapes.

The Other Obama by Sally H. Jacobs

With that in mind, I picked up The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs off the Sonoma County library shelf not because of Barack Sr.’s famous son, President Barack Obama Jr., and not because my novel, Dreamers, ends with Barack Obama receiving the Democratic Nomination for President, but because I hoped this book would speak to me of the mystery that is Africa.

Jacob’s biography is subtitled, “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father”. That does truly describe the “other”, senior Barack Obama. You can see it from his picture on the hardback cover: wide, inviting smile, pipe between his teeth, the stylish ’50s haircut, those black-rimmed glasses accentuating his well-modeled face with high cheekbones, the glasses that reflect light seemingly emanating from the man himself.

“Baraka” means “Blessing” in Arabic. Barack Obama’s ecstatic photo embodies the openhearted exuberance of the people I met while in South Africa last December in the mall at Midland, the market in Roosboom, the bar in Ladysmith, and the caves at the Cradle of Humankind. I will not forget how their faces lit up when I mentioned I was from the United States, how they hugged me and how I loved it. I felt blessed like that photo of Barack on the book cover.

For a native boy from Africa growing up in the 1940s, Barak Obama Sr. achieved the nearly impossible and he knew it better than anyone else.  Shakespeare’s Othello had his jealousy, Sophocles’ Oedipus his blindness. The other Obama had great flaws too. He couldn’t get past his potential and actualize it. But still, what a powerful, inspiring struggle he experienced growing up in Kenya, leaving for America and then returning unwillingly to Kenya as the country finally achieved its independence from British colonial rule. So much was happening to Africa then.

In some ways, The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs reads like a flawed Greek tragedy. In a tragedy, a great person experiences the reversal of fortune caused by an inevitable and unforeseen mistake, a flaw in the person him or herself. Witnessing this, the audience experiences a catharsis, a kind of freedom and satisfaction.

Impala in Kruger National Park, South Africa

I did experienced a kind of catharsis after reading this book. And I’m  further along in my search for Africa. One thing I learned is that being fascinated with another culture doesn’t mean you could live in it.

You can find out more about The Other Barack in my book review.