Saturday, March 20, 2010

Evolutionary invective

All winter, my entertainment while I run along the lakefront has been podcasts of David Blight's introductory course on the Civil War and Reconstruction from Yale. I'd recommend them heartily to anyone interested in the subject: as someone who found it almost impossible to stay awake in lectures as an undergrad, I've found Blight's class to be a pleasant reminder that a good lecturer can add substantially to what can be learned from books (to say nothing of how well he can distract from the cold and fatigue on long-distance runs in the depths of winter!)

In one of the final lectures, he shared a great description of Ulysses Grant from Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams. As you read this, don't forget that Adams wrote his autobiography in the third person, so the "him" referred to is Adams himself:
Grant fretted and irritated him . . . as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called--and should actually and truly be--the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as commonplace as Grant's own commonplaces to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President! Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

Education became more perplexing at every phase. No theory was worth the pen that wrote it. America had no use for Adams because he was eighteenth-century, and yet it worshipped Grant because he was archaic and should have lived in a cave and worn skins.
The glorious viciousness of that description is outdone only--to this Grant apologist--by its absurdity. By most accounts, Grant was far more refined than nearly any general who came before him: while he had little patience for the trappings of civilization, dressing abominably and having no interest in ceremony, he understood that the soldiers under him were real people, and he knew just what he was asking of them and their families and their nation as he sent them, time and again, to their deaths. If, as the southerners said, he was a butcher, then he was at least a butcher who knew the details of his bill, and who was willing to take responsibility for the pain that had gone into assembling it. It would, certainly, be far more civilized to have had no war, but given the war, the idea that America would have been better served by replacing Grant's grim determination with a more superficially refined or intelligent leader is hard to countenance.

That's not meant to take away from my appreciation of Adams's invective, which borders on genius; it's hard to top an insult that is based on the idea that someone "should have been extinct for ages."

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