The Library

H.L. Mencken

The American Mercury/February, 1929

Portrait of an Immortal

MEET GENERAL GRANT, by W. E. Woodward. New York: Horace Liveright.

THE dreadful title of this book is not the least of its felicities. If they had been saying such things in his day it seems unquestionable that Grant would have said, “Meet the wife.” He was precisely that sort of man. His imagination was the imagination of a respectable hay and feed dealer, and his virtues, such as they were, were indistinguishable from those of a police sergeant. Mr. Woodward, trying to be just to him, not infrequently gives him far more than he deserves. He was not, in point of fact, a man of any great competence, even as a soldier. All the major strategy of the war, including the final advance on Richmond, was planned by other men, notably Sherman. He was a ham as a tactician, and habitually wasted his men. He was even a poor judge of other generals, as witness his admiration for Sheridan and his almost unbelievable under-rating of Thomas and Meade. If he won battles, it was because he had the larger battalions, and favored the primitive device of heaving them into action, callously, relentlessly, cruelly, appallingly.

Thinking was always painful to Grant, and so he never did any of it if he could help it. He had a vague distaste for war, and dreamed somewhat boozily of a day when it would be no more. But that distaste never stayed his slaughters; it only made him keep away from the wounded. He had no coherent ideas on any subject, and changed his so-called opinions overnight, and for no reason at all. He entered the war simply because he needed a job, and fought his way through it without any apparent belief in its purposes. His wife was a slaveholder to the end. At Appomattox he showed a magnanimity that yet thrills schoolboys, but before he became President he went over to the Radical Republicans, and was largely to blame for the worst horrors of Reconstruction. His belief in rogues was cogenital, touching and unlimited. He filled Washington with them, and defended them against honest men, even in the face of plain proofs of their villainy. Retired to private life at last, he sought out the worst scoundrel of them all, gave the fellow control of his whole modest fortune, and went down to inglorious bankruptcy with him. The jail gates, that time, were uncomfortably close; if Grant had not been Grant he would have at least gone on trial. But he was completely innocent. He was too stupid to be anything else.

Mr. Woodward, as I have said, is very generous to him. There is, on almost every page of this book, an obvious effort to make the best of his good impulses, and to gloss over his colossal imbecilities. Sometimes the thing comes close to special pleading: Freud and the unconscious have to be hauled in to make out a plausible case. There is some excuse for that attitude, for Grant, for all his faults and follies, was at least full of honest intentions. Like Almayer, he always wanted to do the right thing. The trouble with him was that he could seldom find out what it was. Once he had got beyond a few elemental ideas, his brain refused to function. Thereafter he operated by hunches, some of them good ones, but others almost idiotic. Commanding his vast armies in the field, he wandered around like a stranger, shabby, uncommunicative and only defectively respected. In the White House he was a primeval Harding, without either the diamond scarf-pin or the cutie hiding in the umbrella closet. He tried, in his dour, bashful way, to be a good fellow. There was no flummery about him. He had no false dignity. But he was the easiest mark ever heard of. It was possible to put anything over on him, however fantastic. Now and then, by a flash of what must be called, I suppose, insight, he penetrated the impostures which surrounded him, and struck out in his Berserker way for common decency. But that was not often. His eight years were scarlet with scandal. He had a Teapot Dome on his hands once a month.

Mr. Woodward’s portrait, despite its mercies, is an extraordinarily brilliant one. The military automaton of the ‘ ‘Memoirs” and the noble phrase-maker of the schoolbooks disappears, and there emerges a living and breathing man, simple-minded, more than a little bewildered, and infinitely pathetic. Grant went to the high pinnacles of glory, but he also plunged down the black steeps of woe. I don’t think that his life was a happy one, even as happiness is counted among such primitive organisms. He was miserable as a boy, he was miserable at West Point, and he was miserable in the old army. The Mexican War revolted him, and he took to drink and lost his commission. For years he faced actual want. The Civil War brought him little satisfaction, save for a moment at the end. He was neglected in its early days in a manner that was wormwood to him, and after luck brought him opportunity he was surrounded by hostile intrigue. He made costly and egregious blunders, notably at Shiloh and Cold Harbor; he knew the sting of professional sneers; he quailed before Lee’s sardonic eye. His eight years in the White House were years of tribulation and humiliation. His wife was ill-favored; his only daughter biological and in-law, harassed and exploited him. He died almost penniless, protesting that he could no longer trust a soul. He passed out in gusts of intolerable pain. It is hard to imagine harder lines.

If, in this chronicle, he sometimes recedes into the background, and seems no more than a bystander at the show, then it is because he was often that in life. Other men had a way of running him—John A. Rawlins during the war, Hamilton Fish at Washington, Ferdinand Ward afterward. His relations to the first-named are discussed in one of Mr. Woodward’s most interesting chapters. Rawlins was the Grant family lawyer at Galena, and had no military experience when the war began. Grant made him his brigade adjutant, and thereafter submitted docilely to his domination. Rawlins was a natural pedagogue, a sort of schoolma’am with a beard. He supervised and limited Grant’s guzzling; he edited Grant’s orders; he made and unmade all other subordinates. “I have heard him curse at Grant,” said Charles A. Dana, “when, according to his judgment, the general was doing something that he thought he had better not do. . . . Without him Grant would have not been the same man.” Gossip in the army went even further; it credited Rawlins with actually sharing command. “The two together,” said James H. Wilson, “constituted a military character of great simplicity, force and singleness of purpose, which has passed into history under the name of Grant.”

Rawlins gets his due in Mr. Woodward’s story, and so do many of the other great characters of the time, most of them already grown fabulous. The book shows hard study and great shrewdness. It would be hard to surpass, for sound sense, the analysis of Andrew Johnson’s vexed and murky personality in the twenty-fourth chapter, or the picture of the Negro freedman which follows it. Here is not only good writing; here is also a highly enlightened point of view. Mr. Woodward is a man of Southern birth and grew up in the midst of the Confederate katzen jammer, but there is no sign of it in his narrative. He is magnificently impartial. The fustian of the Federal patrioteers does not deceive him, but neither is he deceived by the blather of their opponents. He knows how to be amusing without departing from the strict letter of history. He conceals erudition beneath a charming manner. He has written a biography of great merit. It more than fulfills the promise of his “Washington.”

The Origin of Life

WHAT IS LIFE? by Augusta Gaskell.  Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.

WHO Mrs. Gaskell may be I don’t know. In an introduction to her book Dr. Karl T. Compton, professor of physics at Princeton, certifies that “her discussion of modern atomic physics is accurate, well balanced and worth reading for its own sake,” and in another introduction Dr. Raymond Pearl, director of the Institute of Biology at the Johns Hopkins, lets it be known (somewhat more cautiously) that her ‘ ‘discussions of biological problems, particularly that of evolution, have a refreshing novelty and shrewdness which gives them a value by no means negligible.” But “Who’s Who in America” is silent about her, and I can find no news of her in any other reference book, nor do my spies bring in anything more, save the vague report that she lives somewhere in New Jersey.

Whatever may be said against her theory of the origin and nature of life, it at least has two merits: it posits no force outside the range of atomic physics, and its truth or falsity may be conceivably determined (I say conceivably, not probably) by experiment. Life, as she sees it, is born of the meeting of “a hydrogen ion . . . and an atom or ion of electropositive tendency, crowded together and with their domains overlapping.” What follows is complicated, but the end is a union of a positive electron and a negative electron—”not as a hydrogen atom, but as a new and different unit.” This unit is the basis of life. “It cannot enter chemical combinations, nor become a charge on an atom,” but it can “capture both negative and positive electrons and build up a new structure.” And then:

This new unit that can neither become a charge on an atom nor enter into chemical combination with atoms becomes an intraatomic quantity, by reason of its peculiar constitution, its erratic path, and its peculiar electromagnetic properties. There has then been formed a dual system, a system that is made up of two systems, one of which is material, built up of atoms; the other of which is immaterial, that is, not patterned after the manner of the chemical elements. The immaterial system is intraatomic, and is the determining system: it organizes the material system.

As I hint, it is possible that the atomic physicists, who now talk very confidently about the paths of electrons and even draw diagrams of them, may be able to determine experimentally whether this unnatural marriage of electrons really takes place, but I confess that I’d not like to take the contract to do it, nor even engage myself to read the report of him who does. The physicists have swallowed metaphysics and launch gaily into the highest realms of fancy; their tracts become as hard to read as the monographs of astrologers and theologians. But Mrs. Gaskell does not wait for them. Having set forth her theory, she proceeds to run down its implications. Obviously, one of them is that the creation of life is going on all the time—that new protoplasm is being formed all about us, where the conditions are favorable for electrons to run amuck. Such conditions, the author believes, are to be found in what the surgeons call pre-cancerous lesions. Here there is “indifferent cell material that constitutes a solution of great chemical complexity and contains free ions, and in which a critical concentration of ions develops.” The result is a neoplasm. But just how the new “intraatomic system” organizes itself into the highly complicated cells which pathologists recognize—this is not explained.

However, Mrs. Gaskell does not seem to believe that the world’s population of higher organisms is reinforced by any such process. The existing species, she says, do not belong to series that are still evolving, but represent series that have reached the limit of their evolution. All of them were started in the remote past, and each was foreordained, from the beginning, to stop at a certain point. Every one of them, it appears, reached that point long ago, and today we have only completed series. The chimpanzee cannot hope to evolve into a Tennessee Baptist. He must remain a chimpanzee forever, as the Baptist must remain a Baptist. You and I are completed works—botched but completed.

Mrs. Gaskell’s tome is not easy reading. The first part of it, a miniature treatise on atomic physics, may seem simple to Professor Compton, but I confess that it strained my seams very badly. However, the book may be mastered by diligence. It is full of cocksure and saucy stuff, but it is also full of genuine novelty. The author has made a wholly new approach to an old problem. Whether or not the physicists will ever be able to put her theory to the test of experiment I don’t know. They talk very cheerfully of splitting atoms and heaving electrons about, but I suspect that much of it is mere talk. But if they can really do such things, then Mrs. Gaskell shows them how to do it to some purpose. If she is right, the day it is proved will be a sad day for Genesis.

A Good Man Gone Wrong

DOOMED SHIP, by Judd Gray. New York: Horace Liveright.

MR. GRAY went to the chair in Sing Sing, on January 11, 1928, for his share in the butchery of Mrs. Ruth Snyder’s husband. The present book was composed in his last days, and appears with the imprimatur of his devoted sister. From end to end of it he protests pathetically that he was, at heart, a good man. I believe him. The fact, indeed, is spread all over his singularly naive and touching record. He emerges from it as the almost perfect model of the Y. M. C. A. alumnus, the conscientious husband and father, the Christian businessman, the virtuous and God-fearing Americano. It was his very virtue, festering within him, that brought him to his appalling doom. Another and more wicked man, caught in the net of La Snyder, would have wriggled out and gone on his way, scarcely pausing to thank God for the fun and the escape. But once poor Judd had yielded to her brummagem seductions, he was done for and he knew it. Touched by sin, he shriveled like a worm on a hot stove. From the first exchange of wayward glances to the final agony in the chair the way was straight and inevitable.

All this sounds like paradox, but I offer it seriously, and as a psychologist of high gifts. What finished the man was not his banal adultery with his suburban sweetie, but his swift and overwhelming conviction that it was mortal sin. The adultery itself was simply in bad taste: it was, perhaps, something to be ashamed of, as stealing a taxi driver’s false teeth would be something to be ashamed of, but it was no more. Elks and Shriners do worse every day, and suffer only transient qualms. But to Gray, with his Presbyterian upbringing and his idealistic view of the corset business, the slip was a catastrophe, a calamity. He left his tawdry partner in a daze, marveling that there could be so much sin in the world, and no belch of fire from Hell to stop it. Thereafter his demoralization proceeded from step to step as inexorably and as beautifully as a case of Bright’s disease. The woman horrified him, but his very horror became a kind of fascination. He resorted to her as a dry United States Senator resorts to the jug, protestingly, tremblingly and helplessly. In his blinking eyes she became an amalgam of all the Loreleis, with the Rum Demon peeping over her shoulder. Whatever she ordered him to do he did at once, like a man stupified by some diabolical drug. When, in the end, she ordered him to assassinate her oaf of a husband, he proceeded to the business almost automatically, wondering to the last instant why he obeyed and yet no more able to resist than he was able, on the day of retribution, to resist his 2,000 volts.

In his narrative he makes much of this helplessness, and speculates somewhat heavily upon its cause. That cause, as I hint, is clear enough: he was a sincere Presbyterian, a good man. What is the chief mark of such a good man? That he cannot differentiate rationally between sin and sin—that a gnat gags him as badly as a camel. One hears members of the fraternity arguing quite seriously that bootleggers ought to be hanged—that it is quite as bad to supply the wine for a wedding feast as it is to burn down an orphan asylum. One hears of others chasing fancy women with the fury appropriate to mad dogs, and damning Darwin as a man as bad as Jack the Ripper. So with poor Gray. His initial sin shocked him so vastly that he could think of himself thereafter only as a sinner unspeakable and incorrigible. In his eyes the step from adultery to murder was as natural and inevitable as the step from the cocktail-shaker to the gutter in the eyes of a Methodist bishop. He was rather astonished, indeed, that he didn’t beat his wife and embezzle his employers’ funds. Once the conviction of sin had seized him he was ready to go the whole hog.

He went, as a matter of record, somewhat beyond it. His crime was of the peculiarly brutal and atrocious kind that only good men commit. An Elk or a Shriner, persuaded to murder Snyder, would have done it with a certain decency. Moreover, he would have demanded a plausible provocation. But Gray, being a good man, performed the job with sickening ferocity, and without asking for any provocation at all. It was sufficient for him that he was full of sin, that God had it in for him, that he was hopelessly damned.

His crime, in fact, was a sort of public ratification of his damnation. It was his way of confessing. If he had any logical motive it was his yearning to get into Hell as soon as possible. In his book, to be sure, he speaks of Hell under the name of Heaven. But that is mere blarney, set down for the comfort of his family. He was too good a Presbyterian to have any illusions on the point: he was, in fact, an amateur theologian of very respectable attainments. He went to the chair fully expecting to be in Hell in twenty seconds.

There are some confusions in his story, and not unnaturally, for it was written mainly in the death-house and its last pages were done less than an hour before his execution. His sister has deleted certain “matter without meaning” and “occasional hysterical religious expressions,” but the narrative, we are assured by the publisher, is otherwise unmolested. It seems to me that it is a human document of immense interest and value, and that it deserves a great deal more serious study than it will probably get. Its moral is plain. Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous. It should be left to the congenitally sinful, who know when to play with it and when to let it alone. Run a boy through Sunday-school and you must police him carefully all the rest of his life, for once he slips he is ready for anything.

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