Thursday, April 08, 2010


One of the great pleasures of the two excellent biographies I've read in the past week have been their peripheral figures, those side characters who, in thumbnail sketches or recurrent roles, do so much of the work of fleshing out a well-written life and times. Today I'll share one this brief sketch from Jean Edward Smith's Grant (2001) of the towering abolitionist senator Charles Sumner:

For the president, Charles Sumner personified Puritan elitism at its worst: narrow-minded, sanctimonious, ever ready to transform mundane practicalities into precious issues of principle. In Sumner's case those characteristics were exacerbated by a waspish tongue and an effete manner that were difficult to digest for a soldier like Grant. Above all, however, it was Sumner's intellectual arrogance that annoyed the president. When Boutwell asked one day whether he had ever heard sumner converse, Grant, a twinkle in his eye, observed that he had never had the privilege, though he had "often heard him lecture." Like Massachusetts's Ellbridge Gerry, the quintessential loose cannon of the early republic, Sumner treated politics as the pursuit of perfection. When Grant was told that Sumner did not believe in the Bible, he was not surprised. "Well, he didn't write it," said the president. Years later Grant noted sadly that, "Sumner is the only man I was ever anything but my real self to; the only man I ever tried to conciliate by artificial means."
I admire the way that Smith deploys Grant's quotations there: without ever losing track of the main point of the paragraph, which is to let us see Sumner as a political actor and public figure (Remind you of any Liebermans?)*, he uses the quips to keep the ultimate focus on Grant, and Grant's attitude towards Sumner. The wit those quotes display is a pleasant surprise, though perhaps it shouldn't be: Grant is famous for the clarity and economy of his battlefield orders, and what benefits from clarity and economy more than a bon mot?

This weekend, I'll share some scenes featuring my favorite peripheral character in Victoria Glendinning's Jonathan Swift (1998), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But before I close this post I have to add an amusing aside that Smith includes in a footnote to an 1869 cabinet meeting, the first after a long, heat-induced summer recess:
Summers in Washington before air conditioning were no treat, and the sumer of 1869 was particularly unpleasant. The temperature in Fish's State Department office, supposedly the coolest in the building, hovered in the mid-90s throughout August. [Attorney General] Rockwood Hoar wrote his wife that Washington "is hot! hotter!! hottest!!! hottentot! hottentotter! hottentottest! more hottentotter! most hottentottest!!!!!!!! The daily bill of fare is as follows: For breakfast, Attorney General broiled; For dinner, Attorney General roasted; For supper, Attorney General boiled, and the same dish kept hot in an oven, and served at any hour of the night."
I'm no fan of air conditioning--I would gladly live without it at home--but a 90-plus-degree office is enough to make me shudder.

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