The Amend Corner

Private letters to a lady, made public


My reading interests took an uncharacteristic turn last week.

For most of my adult life, I have preferred to read non-fiction — especially history and current events — to reading fiction. Even when I read a novel, it is usually a story set within an historical event or a classic novel of some literary importance.

Recently, I have consumed a couple of recently published light novels along with a couple of Victorian novels and a few Jack London short stories. Last weekend, though, I returned to my favorite subject, history, but with a book that is rather unusual. It is a collection of 85 letters Ulysses S. Grant wrote to a girl he courted as a young officer and, as the commander of Union armies a decade later, to the same girl, who had become his wife, Julia Dent Grant.

I enjoyed the book, but I have to admit that I felt a little funny reading the letters at first. Reading somebody else’s mail isn’t a very polite thing to do in the first place, and it’s probably even less polite to read a guy’s intimate letters with his sweetheart. I don’t think I’d like some stranger poking his nose into the letters I wrote to my wife-to-be back during the year-long gap we had to endure between my graduation from UW and her graduation before we could get married. I don’t actually remember what I said in any of those letters, but it’s quite possible that I expressed some thoughts that might cause me embarrassment.

I suspect the former president of the U.S. might have felt the same way about his letters to Julia, but I wonder if he was aware that his lady kept every one of those letters he wrote. Julia did consider publishing them and actually talked to Mark Twain about it. She no doubt did so because her husband’s memoirs had sold like those proverbial hotcakes, and she hoped the letters would provide her with an income, which she really needed.

This is worrisome. This saving of letters from a beau seems to be a girl thing, and somewhere among our possessions is a box containing all of the letters I wrote to my wife. In addition, there is a letter telling her that she should strongly consider dumping me, or at least issue a stern tongue-lashing that I would never forget.

That letter came from a girl in the sociology class I was teaching, after a discussion of cultural differences surrounding marriage. One of the ideas that came up was the importance of having an attractive spouse. When I said that the beauty of the other  person shouldn’t be the only concern when you are choosing a mate, this girl decided that I must think the girl I was writing to was fat and ugly.

I’m not sure how she got Karen’s address, but she did, and my student passed her opinion to Karen. Thankfully, Karen thought it was funny, and I was neither tongue-lashed nor dumped and our wedding went on as scheduled. However, I think that letter is still in the box, so I may not be safe yet.

Unlike Julia Grant, though, my wife isn’t likely to seek publication of my letters to her, at least partly because she is more easily embarrassed than I. Besides, while she won’t be a rich widow, she should be able to live comfortably, so I don’t have to worry.

Julia Grant’s effort to have the letters published never succeeded, until now, 133 years after her husband’s death. Ron Chernow, who recently wrote a wonderful biography of U.S. Grant, published the book I am reading, “My Dearest Julia.” It contains letters from his early years as a soldier, including those he wrote during the Mexican War, and those he wrote during the Civil War. It closes with a farewell letter he wrote to Julia a month before he succumbed to throat cancer.

The letters, which Grant wrote almost daily, reveal a person much different from the man imagined by many Americans.  He turns out to be an excellent writer, although rather careless about spelling and some points of grammar. He demonstrates a sense of humor, but he deplores the carnage of the war, and the effect of civilians engulfed in the conflict especially troubles him.

I have always felt that Grant has always been misrepresented by history and underrated by most Americans. This book and Chernow’s biography “Grant,” go a long way toward changing that. They are both worth reading.

The Amend Corner