Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Month: May, 2017

American Ulysses

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White Jr.


When Ulysses S. Grant died, Fredrick Douglas described him as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior”. In American Ulysses, Ronald White sets out to justify this eulogy and succeeds magnificently.

Though overshadowed in life and death by Abraham Lincoln, it was the partnership of these two men which saved America, physically and morally. Lincoln set the principles and provided the enduring words, but it was Grant who put it into action. As a Union general in the Civil War, and US President he did more than any other man to end slavery and make good the nation’s promise of freedom in the years after.

Grant’s reputation, then and now has not always been strong. His military prowess is admired in Staff Colleges, and parts of the literary establishment recognise the eloquence of his memoirs. But in popular lore he was a failure before the war, a drunk during it, and a corrupt naif as President afterwards.

In this sympathetic, but not hagiographic, biography, White challenges all these claims. He shows Grant as a quiet, humble and cautious man. One who took well until adulthood to find his own views on slavery, often sitting quietly before his anti-slavery father and later pro-slavery father-in-law. It was not until he commended the entire Union army that that he would find his voice, and purpose. Though in the charming customs of the day, he would be twice elected President to achieve these goals without ever directly campaigning for it.

Grant certainly came from poor stock. His was a leather tanning family from out west, who lucked into sending their first born to West Point. Grant’s career in the Mexican War was honourable though undistinguished. He would later struggle with the boredom and isolation of peacetime service, likely turning to drink. He resigned rather than face disgrace, and would struggle for years as a farmer, having to accept work in his father’s shop to sustain his growing family.  Read the full article »

The Road to Character

The Road to Character by David BrooksBrooks_road

I initially picked this book up as something of a palate cleanser, after a series of heavy reads. But far from simply offering a fresh taste in crisp writing, I found a rich and flavourful book which has opened up many new avenues for future reading.

Like his columns and other books —which I admire— I had expectedThe Road to Character to be a sociological ramble about the good life. At worst it would be a generic, though lightly woven, argument that the old days were better and we’re all wayward children today. This impression was seemingly confirmed in the first few pages with an anecdote comparing constrained celebrations in 1945 at the end of the war, with the showboating of modern football stars.

Yet rather than pursue this theme, Brooks largely gets out of the way for the next 250 pages, offering a series of moral-biography sketches. Each is fascinating and sympathetic in portraying people who have worked and struggled to develop themselves as moral agents.

Some undertook these journeys so they could contribute to resolving the chaos of the worlds they lived in. Francis Perkins was The woman behind the New Deal as one biography put it. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower helped lead the allies to victory in world war two. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were vital leaders in the Civil Rights movement in America. All had to constrain some element of their own personality, expressions and desires to be able to lead.  Read the full article »