Good things come to those who wait. Jerome Loving established his credentials as an academic and historian a long time ago. I haven’t read the other biographies he has written, but they’re going on my list now.
Here’s what you have to know going into it: if you are looking for the sound bite, the cut-to-the-chase, you can’t have that wish. Loving uses induction rather than deduction, and brick by brick he builds toward his conclusion, taking the time to set context in a way that only a specialized biography such as this one, which focuses on the single year 1885, can do. And since I received this gorgeous little hardcover book as a Goodreads.com First Reads giveaway, I was impatient at first. “What the heck. Where’s the bushwhacking? Where’s Grant?”
Uh uh uh. No. Go back, reread. Everything that is in this book is there for a reason. If you hustle through the first part to get to the second, you may leave too many holes in the foundation. Do you want the wall to fall down? Of course not.
What I noticed, as I marched through with my sticky notes, is that the clusters were initially sparse, as the stage was set, and then suddenly ramped up around page 100, and by the end of the biography I was putting a sticky on every page and sometimes on facing pages.
I could tell you what he has to say; I went back and looked at all of those notes, but then, why would I wreck it for you? An author who builds up to the last page does not need a reviewer to hand over his punch line for him.
Instead, I can tell you that this is a careful, painstaking, well-documented analysis of a complex character. Twain’s ideas evolved between his 20’s and the end of his life, and of course, for most of us they do, but perhaps because his mind was open and searching, or perhaps because of his great fondness for “Sam” Grant, he watched what took place–including the Haymarket martyrdom, which I never knew had been an interest of his–and revised his ideas accordingly. Smart people can do that.
Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of this work is that it not only makes me want to see what else Loving has written, it also makes me want to revisit Twain. I had avoided much of Twain’s philosophical writing because of his anger toward the “damn human race”, to which I am much attached, thanks. But I want to see more about the connection between the events that played out during this time period and his changing perspectives.
One small correction is in order to Loving’s work, though I know this is a tiny, picky detail: Loving states that a huge redwood tree had been named for Grant. Ahem. It is a Sequoia tree. It is immense, but it is General Sherman’s that is the largest in the entire world. Sequoias belong to the same family as redwoods, but they are different. Having driven several days from Seattle to Southern California to see the tree; survived a four-car pile-up, rescued my luggage, bandaged and iced myself and my children, hired a rental car and driven onward to fulfill my mission, I can’t let it go by without mentioning it. Two great huge trees in honor of my two favorite American generals of all time. Sequoias. A hint is that they are located in Sequoia National Park. Makes sense, no?
If you are reading this exclusively for the Civil War aspect, I will tell you that most of the book is not devoted to that time period; it says it is about 1885, not 1865, and when examining the book’s jacket, a knee-jerk reaction will leave you dangling. There is a small but meaty portion in which Twain discusses his part in the American Civil War, but this is not a Civil War history.
For those who read memoirs and biographies as rapaciously as I do, this is a must-read. For those who enjoy American history and literature, and most of all Twain, it is highly recommended. If you like Grant and maybe have even plowed through his remarkably readable autobiography, even better! But you can easily understand this book without it.
Many of my Goodreads.com First Reads will eventually be given away to my daughter’s school or some other good cause. Not this one; it will retain a place of pride in our home library. Thank you for writing it, Mr. Loving, and thanks to the University Press of New England for the free copy.