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August 01, 2002

Business, Sherman, Thurber

Michael --

To the naked eye, it would seem that we're being very successful and making lots of money. I find, oddly, that the task of being me seems almost insupportable precisely at such moments. I am much better at dealing with absolute disaster; it brings out the best in me. (My wife, having observed me closely for many years, agrees wholeheartedly.)

I have considerable fellow feeling for Wm. T. Sherman, the Civil War general who was relieved of a high command for "nervously" predicting that the likelyhood of a quick Union victory was not very high. Indeed, he suggested that the South might well be able to take St. Louis before the North could take Nashville. He was redeemed from rumors of insanity by the battle of Shiloh, where his troops were confronted by a Confederate surprise attack and almost routed. In conditions that were finally as bad as (or worse than) his worst fears, he became extremely effective. Although wounded twice (staunching blood from a bullet through his hand with a handkerchief he pulled tight with his teeth) and having two or three horses shot out from under him, he calmed his panicked men, stabilized his defensive line, and even reached the supreme height of practical eloquence by convincing soldiers who had run out of ammunition not to retreat. In order to reach his full potential as a general he needed to melt the ice of his self-doubts in the warmth of his relationship with Grant, who he felt "...didn't know as much as I did about military history or theory, but who had faith in victory the way a devout Christian has faith in God. When I don't know what the enemy is up to, I start to get very nervous; Grant doesn't care what the enemy is doing, he just cares about what he is doing."

An interesting guy, Sherman; did you know he was probably the most famous person in America when, after retiring as head of the Army, he lived in New York during the 1890's? He was very ascerbic and quick witted, and always had a great quote for newspapermen on any subject.

I'm reading a biography of James Thurber, which isn't a great biography but is entertaining because he spends a lot of time quoting Thurber's humorous writings. (Thurber, by the way, appears to have dealt several times with the Civil War. In one piece I'd love to read, spoofing a "what might have been" series in another magazine, Thurber portrays General Grant--after a night of hard drinking at Appamatox--as so confused and hung over that he attempts to surrender his army to a surprised General Lee.)

While Thurber seems to have perfectly illustrated the idea that to be a successful humorist you have to lead an emotionally immature and stunted private life, I do respect his public resistance to left wing thought during the 30's. I think what has always depressed me about the Thirties is that so many intellectuals, who had available to them the extremely goofy but very well defined "American experience" of the previous 150 years--including Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Robert E. Lee, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Louis Armstrong, Ambrose Bierce, etc., etc., would have tried to suck up to something as wussy as socialism and the "proletarian" experience. I mean, who wants to model themselves on a bunch of repulsive Russians--virtually gangrenous types like Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, etc.--when you had so much juicier role models right in front of your nose? It just doesn't say much for their taste, if you know what I mean.

It reminds me of The Horse's Mouth, when Gulley Jimson is disappointed with a young woman he meets because she hasn't fully actualized herself as a woman--which, he points out was her only hope, in this life, of fully actualizing herself as a human being. American intellectuals who can't or won't be 100% American--with all the faults and stupidities that that entails--don't have much hope of ever become 100% anything.



posted by Friedrich at August 1, 2002


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