Writing the Historical Novel
By Max Byrd
An interview with the novelist by George J. Leonard, three days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
I. Introduction: An Historical Novelist at an Historic Moment
This interview took place at San Francisco State University only three days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Max Byrd had just published his novel GRANT about the Civil War, his second novel involving a great American general (JACKSON was the first.)
The conversation about a great American general and a "just war" to free the slaves was charged with the emotions from Sept. 11. The reader can recall the mood of that first shocked week afterward. Another attack was thought imminent. The war on the Taliban was about to start. Nobody knew if it could be won, or would turn into a "quagmire," another Vietnam. Byrd's San Francisco audience included students from all over the world-- Moslems, Jews, even Afghans. Every word about history and war had special meaning in that extraordinary context.
GL: We have Max Byrd with us today, who is one of the best-known American historical novelists. Max Byrd is an expert on American history, and even American wars, which is all incredibly to the point since the World Trade Center, as we were talking about last time.
First, Mr. Byrd will just say a few things about the historical novel in general, then I will read some of the questions that you have written out in advance for him. If you hear one of your questions and you want to elaborate on it, or if you feel like raising your hand or jumping in at any point, by that time you might be relaxed enough to do that. Max?
MB: Thank you, George.
I am going to sit down, to lecture, though it is going to make me very nervous. The last time I actually saw somebody sit down and give a lecture or talk as opposed to standing up, it was back in Boston, and it was right after lunch; the room was a little too warm, and the speaker was talking away, and slowly, visibly, in front of us, though the audience stayed completely awake and alert, he fell asleep! Right in mid-sentence. This left us actually with a terrible problem. Think about it: what do you do, do you leave the poor guy there snoozing, everybody leaves the room and he wakes up to find the room empty and nobody had the nerve to wake him up?
I don't know if George mentioned to you: until not that many years ago, I was leading a cheerful life of crime. I was writing detective novels and I had written a number of those, mostly set in California, and I was having fun doing that.
And, I don't remember the year, I think it was 1989-- it may have been earlier-- but the publisher of Bantam Books, the publisher of all my hardboiled detective novels, a man named Steve Ruben, telephoned me. I had never met Steve Ruben but I knew who he was, of course; so he telephoned me, here in California, and I sprang to attention and said, "What can I do for you?" and he said he wanted to tell me that he did not himself very much like detective novels.
This led to a long silence at my end of the phone as I imagined I could hear the axe coming down and this was going to be the end of me and Bantam Books. He said he didn't like detective novels, but he did like the way I wrote them, and so he wanted to ask me to write another kind of novel. I said, "What?" He said he wanted me to write an historical novel, and specifically he wanted me to write an historical novel about Thomas Jefferson.
Well, at first I objected very strenuously to that suggestion. --Actually, that is not true: I told him I thought it was the dumbest idea I'd ever heard.
I said that, from a novelist's point of view, however interesting Jefferson might be as a historical figure, as our third president, he was not a promising subject for fiction.
There were a lot of reasons I wanted to say that. Jefferson was not a dramatic personality. If you know anything at all about Thomas Jefferson, you know that he was very shy, and very quiet, and when he spoke in front of groups he frequently got terrible migraine headaches and eventually this wouldn't do it at all. That's one of the reasons he admired Patrick Henry so much in his youth, because Patrick Henry was a great orator. Jefferson was the reason that the presidents used to send over the State of the Union address to Congress, just as it was written out, because he didn't want to come and deliver it.
Jefferson's not dramatic, not a vivid character. And moreover, though he had a wonderful life of accomplishment, it was almost all as a writer. That's how we think of Jefferson: as a great writer.
Writer's lives are not usually very dramatic.
Moreover, when you think of subjects for historical novels, you might think of somebody like Lincoln, who was kind of an American Hamlet. He was witty and melancholy, and Lincoln's great life takes place with the backdrop of the Civil War and of course ends with his assassination. Jefferson lived a long, quiet life and died peacefully in his bed at the age of 83.
So I told Steve Ruben, "There's just no drama here. A man dies at 83, this is just not exciting."
And I told him there was yet another problem: Jefferson had an enigmatic personality. Almost everyone who met Jefferson and left a record of that, used the same word to describe Thomas Jefferson's personality: they said he was "feline." Like a cat. Very elusive, he pulled back, you never got close to him.
So I said I wouldn't do it.
Steve Ruben kept telephoning me and I kept writing crime novels, but he kept pestering me. Finally I said-- he wore me down-- I said I would do that if he would agree to pay for all my research expenses. He said, "Oh, sure, sure, sure, that's no problem."
And I'm sure at the time when he said that, when he agreed, he thought that meant some Xeroxes, a few books, and maybe a trip to Monticello, maybe not. I said, okay. He paid for my research expenses, that was one condition, and the other was that I was just going to concentrate on the years in Jefferson's life between 1784 and 1789.
Steve Ruben said, "Well, sure, but why?"
I said, "Because those are the years that Jefferson lived in Paris."
That's where the research that he had just agreed to pay for would have to be done.
This time it was his turn to have a long silence at the end of the phone.
But he said he would do that, so dutifully I went off to Paris and stopped being a crime writer, and started doing research on historical novels.
II. What is an "Historical Novel
I had to do two things: I had to learn a lot about Thomas Jefferson, but I also had to learn what a "historical novel" was. Because when he asked me, I had not really given it any thought.
I have done a lot of thinking about it since: what a "historical novel" is, as opposed to a "history book" such as you would find in a regular history course. There are a lot of things that are different about historical novels.
Here is one of the first things I learned.
People kept coming up to me and saying, "This is a very new genre. You're going to write a fiction about a real person, a real historical person, but make up dialogue and scenes-- this is a very new idea," they would say. This genre must have just been invented; or it must have been invented, earliest, by Gore Vidal.
It's about as new as Homer's Iliad. That's about how new the historical novel is. You could actually make a case for the "historical novel" being the oldest of literary forms. You take the life or the events of a certain period, things that you know really happened, and you try to tell the story vividly and dramatically, which is not what a history textbook necessarily wants to do.
So I started reading historical novels. I did, in fact, start with the Iliad, looking that over again. Then I made a list, my one intellectual tool-- I never mastered calculus, so my intellectual tool is the list-- and I made a list of at least three things that a historical novel was going to have to do to be successful. Because we were not talking about (Steve Ruben and I) a swashbuckling kind of novel in which people would have capes and swords and a sort of costume drama just happens to be set in the past. We were talking about something that really wants to present, realistically, events that actually happened.
a. "A history of the Tribe"
The first thing that a historical novel of that sort seems to me to do is always to present what you might call a "history of the tribe." The history of the whole peoples that are involved in it. The Iliad is not a story about Achilles and Hector so much as it is about the Greeks and the Trojans, and how Troy came to be destroyed, and what happened to the whole fate of those two empires. A good historical novel of this sort needs to be about the larger subject of the people, the tribe, the nations involved.
b. "In medias res"
The second thing that I figured out was that an historical novel begins-- to use a Latin phrase, "in medias res,"-- that means in the middle of the thing-- the beginning is in the middle. A historical novel is not a history.
A very good example of this is Gore Vidal's wonderful novel about Abraham Lincoln. If you were going to write a "history" of Lincoln (as opposed to an "historical novel") a straight, factual "biography," you would start with Lincoln's parents, no doubt, or where he was born, and you would follow him through his schooling and his early years in Illinois. You would just tell the story of his life in a straightforward manner.
But the novelist doesn't want to do that. The novelist chooses a part of the whole story and makes that part, packs that part, with all the drama that he can. So it's very compressed. Gore Vidal doesn't tell the story of Lincoln's whole life; the novel LINCOLN, which is a wonderful, wonderful historical novel, begins in 1861, when Lincoln is arriving in Washington to be inaugurated as president. And of course it ends four years later with his assassination. He just picks those four years; he doesn't try to tell the whole story, just the part that is the memorable, vivid part.
c. "Scale: Long and Deep"
And the other thing, the third thing that I learned, was that historical novels have a different scale. Historical novels are long and deep. They go all the way from the underworld up to the top of Mt. Olympus.
By "scale" I mean two things: scale means the scale of characters you're going to write about, a sort of canvas; it also means, the practical matter of how long you write.
If you're going to write a detective novel (some of you are interested in writing detective novels), and you want to hand it in to the publisher to be published, you would hand in about 300 typed pages, 350, maybe. That's a standard little detective novel. I'm not talking about one of those Robert Ludlum doorstop things, but just a straightforward detective novel, it's 300 to 350 typed pages at the most.
But my contract with Bantam Books for a "historical novel" called for a manuscript of 650 pages, which is not just two detective novels back to back: it's a whole different way of writing large. Historical novels tend to be much longer and larger than ordinary novels. An example of that is War and Peace, which is an historical novel actually. Gauge the scale of the thing when you look at the back of War and Peace.
III. The fiction writer's most important decision:
in which person do you write?
So I had done all of this: I had read all of the things I could find about Jefferson, I roamed around Paris pretending I was doing lots of research, and then I sat down and I faced the single most important decision that a writer of fiction ever makes. This is the one decision that you make, whether you're writing a short story, or a short detective novel, or a massive historical novel, you have to begin with this decision, and it's a grammatical decision. The decision is, in which person, which grammatical person, do you write?
If you write in the first person, if you say "I did," "I" and so forth, you have a narrator who tells it in the first person, that sets you in one direction.
But if you write in the third person ("you did," "she did," and so forth) then you're set in another direction.
Now beginning novelists are almost always advised to write in the first person. That's usually good advice. There's something that's quite vivid and compelling about somebody telling you a story in his own voice, saying, "I did this," "I did that;" and incidentally I think it's impossible to have writer's block when you're writing in the first person. There's something about writing, "I did," "I said," and it just opens the gates. We don't get tired of using ourselves as subjects very often.
The first person is generally the way to go to grip the reader and to move right in. The trouble is, when you are writing a long novel, and you are looking at 600 typed pages, the first person, unless you're Charles Dickens, runs a great risk of becoming monotonous. And it also limits you on that canvas.
Remember that a historical novel has to have a large canvas-- has to be about the tribe, about many people-- and in the first person, you have eliminated the possibility of going from character to character and from scene to scene. You are pretty much married to that narrator you've chosen.
Most historical novels are actually written in the third person. That was what I found, and that was clearly an advantage for a novelist, to get many points of view. Get a panoramic effect, and you get the word that applies to the best historical novels: it looks like an "epic." It's long and covers many people.
IV. The character who is a "bridge to the past"
There's one other thing that an historical novel needs, I decided, and that is: if it's set at all in the distant past, somebody in this book, real or imagined, has to have a modern kind of mentality, a modern sensibility.
There has to be somebody in there that we can identify with. We are now in the 21st Century-- there has to be somebody enough like us that they can make a bridge back to the past, so that we can have a transition.
I decided to write JEFFERSON in the third person because I knew I could never write in the first person from Thomas Jefferson's point of view. Just the idea of saying, "I, Thomas Jefferson, crossed the street" was too much. I wasn't about to do that.
And, there was, right there handy, an actual historical character who could be my modern sensibility:
Jefferson's friend and protégé, 24 year-old William Short. He was a real character, a founder of Phi Beta Kappa, who admired Jefferson and loved him, and tried to be like him.
I wrote this historical novel having worked all this out, more or less as I told you, and I had the various points of view. There was William Short. But there were many other people, and they kind of revolved around Jefferson. I never had Jefferson speak in his own voice because I was afraid to, and it also seemed to me that-- remember Jefferson is this enigmatic, elusive personality-- this is how you would know him, had you been his contemporary. You wouldn't have been inside his head; you would have known him by revolving around him and observing.
V. Andrew Jackson: "He was the price Americans paid for Jefferson"
So I did that, and Steve Ruben was happy.
He said, "Do another one," and I said, "Okay," and I did Andrew Jackson. I did Andrew Jackson for several reasons. One was that it started with a "J". I had just written JEFFERSON. Once you've got a thing going, you go with it. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] I've been very upset about GRANT, "G" but, well, there it is. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
But Jackson started with a "J"---- and Jackson was the very opposite of Jefferson.
Jefferson was this intellectual, a writer, a man who was very shy, unwarlike; Jefferson was not in the Revolutionary War. He was governor of Virginia and he was actually impeached by the Legislature and charged with cowardice. Jefferson was not a warrior kind of character; he was an intellectual democrat.
But Jackson was the very opposite. Jackson was a warrior from the moment he was born.
Jackson was a great general. He was a ferocious president. Jackson was an incredibly physical person. Where Jefferson was intellectual and a writer, Jackson wrote very little. Jackson was the first president who had a speechwriter. He wrote very little; he was a man of action, but he was also a democrat.
GL: Jackson actually had engaged in knife fights?
MB: Oh, duels, yes! Jackson was having duels until he was forty, chiefly over his wife, who had been accused of bad behavior, and he would defend her honor. Even into his early forties he was involved in brutal frontier life.
He was a great democrat. In some ways it was a great American transition because-- I have one of the characters say that Jackson was "the price Americans paid for having Jefferson," and I think I know what he meant when he said that (I guess I should, I made him say it).
Jefferson was a theoretical democrat. He thought that in a democracy we would all be gentleman farmers; we would read our Greek in the afternoon, we would plow our fields, we would eat and have refined meals, and it would all be much like his own life at Monticello.
The reality was more like Jackson, who came storming in from Tennessee, which was the Wild West at that point-- there were still buffalo in Tennessee then! He came storming in, and at Jackson's inauguration in 1828 it seemed to many people as if the "mob" had taken over. The public came and danced in the White House, and they collapsed punch bowls and stood on the furniture, and it was a riotous scene; but that was democracy. Democracy did not look, in reality, at all the way Jefferson had imagined.
VI. Grant: the international hero of his time
So JEFFERSON, JACKSON.... I had two J's down and I was desperately searching for another "J" and was unable to find one, but Grant, a "G", was close. My wife pointed out that actually. So I do have a plan in these novels! I may not be following the alphabet, exactly, but I am following the pictures on American currency, starting with Jefferson, Jackson and then Grant. For those of you well off enough to know, I have been told I should now move on to Benjamin Franklin, who is on the $100 bill.
I was interested in Grant for another reason. I had picked up the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of U.S. Grant and I started to read it. It was a big, massive book and I thought it would be interesting. Grant was a famous and controversial character.
And the very first sentence made me so angry that I could barely finish the book.
The first sentence of the book was (and this was a Pulitzer Prize-winner!): "Grant was certainly not remarkable for intelligence." I read that and I thought, "What can this author be thinking?" General Grant was "not remarkable for his intelligence??"
Here was somebody who had commanded an army of half a million men; who had fought successfully through the Civil War and beaten the greatest general, it was thought, of his time, Robert E. Lee. He had been elected President twice; he had written a book that was still in print 160 years later. And what is more, this biographer did not even know that Grant, as a young man, had solved a problem in topographical algebra that became the standard solution for this topographical problem for about fifty years in all the American mathematics textbooks, this solution by U.S. Grant. What could this guy have been thinking when he said that such a man was "not remarkable for intelligence?"
Well, I hardly need to tell you that the author of this prize-winning biography was a professor. An academic.
And there are two classes of Americans in history that academics have a lot of trouble with: one is warriors, and the other is businessmen. Professors really have a lot of trouble knowing what to do about them. By and large, professors disapprove.
GL [to audience, agreeing] Think about that. If you encounter in your classes, in this university, someone who is either a general or a businessman, do you think the professor is usually going to be for them, or against them? [LAUGHTER] Right, true, always going to be against them. "Politically incorrect."
MB: It is true, it is true. It was clear that this professor had a case [he was trying to make] against Grant, but I wasn't sure what it was. And I started reading around; not just one biography, but other things.
What I learned, to my amazement, was that during his lifetime, from the end of the Civil War to his death, U.S. Grant was, without a doubt, the best-known and most popular individual on this planet, not just in America, but worldwide.
When Grant retired from the presidency after two terms, he treated himself (he had saved his money) to a trip around the world. He left New York in a steamer and landed at Liverpool, England. He was just going as a private citizen, he was no longer President, just wanted to see the world. He had never traveled.
When he got off the boat in Liverpool, England, the largest crowd, to that day in English history, had gathered at the docks to greet him and cheer him. It was a stupendous outpouring from the English working classes.
You have to ask yourself, why would they come to see Grant? What was there about U.S. Grant that had captured not only the English, but wherever Grant went after that, there were enormous, cheering crowds.
There were several reasons. One was that Grant was a self-made man. Most people can identify with that. He was not an aristocrat like Jefferson. Everything that he had gotten, he had earned himself and he had come up from the bottom. But the more important thing was that, with Lincoln dead, dead and martyred, Grant was the great living symbol of the man who had freed the slaves. Wherever Grant went, since there was no Lincoln now to cheer, Grant was the next step. Grant and Lincoln were inseparable in people's minds, and Grant was part of Lincoln's great theme as he toured the world.
But rising from the bottom was certainly one reason he was incredibly well-known and popular. As most people knew by then (because there were already a lot of biographies and short books about him) he had led a life of amazing drama.
Grant was born in Ohio near the Ohio River. His father had been a tanner, a man who deals in leather goods. Ohio used to have lots and lots of trees, and the bark was used to tan leather. It was a dirty, rotten kind of business. It was very profitable, given that the need for leather in nineteenth century America was very great: saddles, shoes, belts, straps, almost anything that was done in an industrial way was done in leather. Grant's father had a tannery.
Grant, the boy, hated the place. It required the slaughter of animals, which he did not accept. He couldn't stand the sight of blood. This is the man who became the great general, the so-called "Butcher of Cold Harbor." He could not stand the sight of blood and so he told his father he would have nothing to do with the tannery when he came of age. His father arranged, therefore, to send him off to West Point, not because he wanted Grant to be a soldier but because he was a very stingy man and if you got into West Point, it was free.
So Grant went off to West Point. Which he also hated. He spent most of his time at West Point reading novels, or else riding horses. Grant was a brilliant horseback rider. It was a talent that came naturally to him. The record for the high jump on a horse (I am sure there is a better name for that equestrian event) at West Point is still held by Ulysses S. Grant.
He graduated near the bottom of his class, and was sent off to Fort Jefferson barracks, which is near St. Louis, to serve out his military obligation, in exchange for his free education. And the Mexican War began.Grant was packed off as part of the Army that went from St. Louis in Missouri on down into Mexico.
He was made a "quartermaster" because he was so good with horses. That is, he arranged all of the material and the movement of the horses and the wagons and so on. He did not see combat. He stayed out of it, and after the war was over, he had to remain as part of the Army in Mexico, and there, it was quite clear, was where he began to drink. He was separated by a long distance from his wife; it was a lonely life, and of course he was not, as an occupying soldier, particularly welcomed there. And he began to drink.
He continued to drink.
He came back and lived, for a time, near Lake Michigan. In one of history's little ironies, his wife made him join the Temperance Society: that is, he signed a pledge not to drink. If you ever hear someone say they are a "teetotaler", that is an old Temperance Society expression. You could be an "abstainer" from strong drink, from alcohol, except on pressing social occasions. That was just an "abstainer." Or you could "take the pledge" to stay completely sober, you could be "total" for Temperance, and that was a "teetotaler." Grant became a teetotaler.
But not for long.
His drinking got him into greater and greater trouble. He was sent off by ship across the Panama Canal to escort a group of soldiers up to the forest around Eureka, California. There was an Army outpost, a fort. If he had been lonely in Mexico, well, you can think of California in 1845 or so, up around Eureka, which is not densely populated even now. In 1845 it was just entirely empty. There was nothing there. He was stationed there for two long years, and disastrous years for him, because his drinking became completely out of control, and he was thrown out of the Army.
The last straw came when he was sitting at the payroll table. As a lieutenant he was supposed to pay the soldiers as they came up; but he was so drunk that he couldn't count. He couldn't hand over their money, and he basically collapsed.
So he was thrown out of the Army in disgrace. He had to find his own way back to the Midwest where his wife was waiting.
He tried to be a farmer, but he failed at that. He lived outside St. Louis in a cabin he built for himself called "Hardscrabble" (that was the name he gave it). He had some slaves, but he did not approve of slavery and he basically freed his slaves, just let them go, which was not a popular thing to do in Missouri at that point. He made no money as a farmer.
So he went down another rung on the social ladder: he tried to sell firewood. He would put firewood in his wagon and have a mule drawing him and the wagon around and around and he would try to sell the wood.
No good at that, not making a living, he had three or four children by now, just deeper and deeper into obscurity and failure. And all of the time, drinking. Finally, he hit what was really rock bottom in about 1858 or 1859.
GL: Only two or three years before he becomes a leader of the Grand Army of the Republic? He is riding around in a wagon behind a mule, drunk, trying to sell firewood to people?
MB: That's right. Some of his old Army buddies saw him, and described his appearance. They were amazed. He had been a good West Point cadet, at least good enough to stay in the Army and go through a war campaign. But now he was at the bottom of American life. He was a bankrupt, he was a failure, he was a drunk, he pawned what little jewelry (a watch) he had, so he could buy Christmas presents for his children; and then, he hit the bottom.
The very bottom was when he had to ask his father for a job. Grant was a man now forty years old. He hated to ask his father for any help but he had no choice. His father was a difficult person, and he had grown prosperous. He was a shrewd businessman. His father said Grant could be a clerk in one of his many leather goods stores.
So he went to Galina, Illinois and was a clerk for his father, basically a counter guy, selling leather belts and leather stuff to customers when the war came.
Grant then entered the Army because he had been a commissioned officer before; and within a matter of months, this bankrupt, drunkard and failure was not only a general, but he was the leading general in the Union Army.
He was the only general with any victories to his name, and he had completely changed the nature of his life. He was unrecognizable. How this happened, why it happened, why a man who was at the bottom suddenly came out on top, and then went beyond the top to become President twice-- actually, I have no idea. It is a mystery of human personality, how this could happen, how he could be sober.
George and I were talking earlier today about Mayor Giuliani in New York, which is, in the smaller scale, something like that.
GL: Could you compare Grant's failure to what has happened to Giuliani in the last year? Before everything that happened in the last few days?
MB: Well, Giuliani had been living a soap opera. He had his mistress, and his wife had kicked him out.
GL: He was originally going to run against Hillary Clinton. So immediately, almost simultaneously it comes out, first, that Giuliani had a mistress. His wife herself turned against him. She said, "I cannot stand it any more." He had moved the mistress into Gracie Mansion, the Mayor's home, she was supposed to be the publicist, but no, she was really the mistress. This was what finally his wife could not bear.
She took her own name again: Donna Hanover. He's got his mistress there [and his wife says], "I want you to kick her off of the premises." At the same time, Giuliani goes through testicular cancer, and goes through this tremendous chemotherapy. He is up all night vomiting, I mean, he is absolutely at the bottom. Then, I think, he gets thrown out of Gracie Mansion, because he won't kick the mistress out by himself.
He is living, get this: in a spare bedroom with two gay friends. Well, they're very rich gay friends since he is the mayor of New York after all but they basically have to take him in. He comes in late at night, collapses in the bedroom. Everything is over, his career is over. He is almost finished as mayor because he can never run again by law. He pulls out of the race with Clinton. Finished. Ill. Divorced.
He is the biggest joke for Jay Leno's monolog and everybody else, the hiss and scoff of New York; and then, the planes fly into the World Trade Center.
MB: And after that, unrecognizable that he was the same person.
GL: Giuliani had been the Police Commissioner. Grant had been an officer. Somehow in a crisis like the World Trade Center, or the Civil War, I guess someone like Giuliani or Grant, in the radically changed circumstances-- he was the man they needed.
MB: It happens sometimes that these things take place. After Grant achieved the top (President, twice) he actually went down again to the bottom in some ways. He never drank again, after about 1863 or 1864; it isnot recorded that Grant ever had another drink. But having retired and left the presidency, he went to live in New York City and he lent his name, and invested all his money in a brokerage firm, where he was defrauded.
So, at the age of about sixty-three, Grant woke up one morning to find that he was back where he had been in 1857 - 1858. He was completely broke. His wife counted up that they had $118.00 to their name, that was it. There was no pension for an ex-President, you'd be amazed to know. There was no pension for a general, because he had resigned from the Army, and he had not taken a pension when he was President. He had nothing, he was back at the bottom.
At that point, he was diagnosed, a lot like Giuliani, with throat cancer, which was fatal, as he well knew. At that point as well, his good friend Mark Twain suggested that he write his memoirs, like all the other generals, and at least make some money so that when his wife died, she would have something.
And then, for just under a year, in this heroic and very public struggle, Grant wrote his memoirs. There were reporters stationed outside his house watching; they watched the shadows on the shade in the room. He wrote his memoirs and saw them into the press, and as soon as he had finished the second volume, finished it all, about two weeks later, he died. He kept himself alive long enough to do that.
So his life was a great roller coaster drama. This was not Jefferson; this was real, vivid, dramatic stuff, and I could not resist it.
That was why I went on to Grant. I was so angry with the Pulitzer Prize biography, and I was so interested in the ins and outs (or ups and downs) of his life, that I thought I would also tell you another way of thinking about writing fiction of this sort.
Where I teach, we once had the novelist Thomas Berger over to speak. He wrote Neighbors. And somebody asked him how he started a book. He said he always chose a theme, an abstract theme, such as a critic might write about when you analyze it. He said, "For instance, love is stronger than hate." That would be a theme, and then he thinks up a story to go along with it.
I have to tell you, that is a very unusual practice. Most writers do the story or the characters, and discover what the theme is only as they are working along.
VII. American Theme Number One: the "Reinvented Life"
But themes do emerge. I decided there are two major themes and two minor themes to point out to you in GRANT, in my book, and maybe I can read a passage or two to demonstrate that. Then I can take some of your questions.
The first theme is the one I mentioned, a very American theme. Since I know you are studying, in George's class, "American values."
This theme is a tremendously American theme. Twain called it, "the reinvented life." By that, Mark Twain meant, you are living one kind of life, and suddenly, you live another. This is possible in America; certainly in the nineteenth century where you could move to a new territory, move to a new kind of life and take on a different identity. You can be somebody else. And Mark Twain thought that Grant had just become somebody else.
Grant's nickname at home, in his family, was Sam. People called him Sam Grant. But in public, he was Ulysses S. Grant. In fact, that wasn't even his real name: his real name was Ulysses Hiram Grant, and the Army, when he entered West Point, messed up, and made it Ulysses S. Grant. Even though he was the general and the President for two terms, he was never able to get the Army to change his name back. If you've dealt with bureaucracy, you understand.
In other words, he had name changes and difficulty. Who, really, was he? Ulysses S. Grant, Sam Grant, which was he? The drunk or the great general? Mark Twain really liked this fact about Grant, because that's what Mark Twain was like.
He was Sam, as he was delighted to know, Sam Clemens. And he wasn't really Mark Twain. People called him Sam at home, but in public he was Mark Twain. When he walked down the street, they said, "Hey, Mark," in New York City when he went to Delmonica's or wherever.
And he considered that he had come out of nowhere, that is, out of the frontier of America, along the Mississippi, and then had lived in a mansion that he had earned himself in Hartford, Connecticut, which was a great intellectual center. I have one little passage here that I'll read you, which is how I tried to get that theme in. My narrator, who is fictional, named Tryst, is having a drink with Mark Twain in New York City. And Mark Twain is talking about how he'd like to meet Edison, whom Tryst is writing a story about.
Mark Twain, among his many other qualities, was a celebrity hound. If you were famous in the nineteenth century, if you were at all known, Mark Twain was going to show up. He was going to knock on your door and get to know you. He couldn't resist celebrity.
Indeed, he did go down and see Edison, to Edisonis astonishment. Edison was working in his laboratory as usual, and Mark Twain knocked on the door and said he just happened to be passing through New Jersey and thought they ought to meet.
"I might come down with you," Twain said, in his slow, Missouri drawl. "Like to Meet Tom Edison." But in the end, it was not so much literary or even electrical celebrity that seemed to matter to Twain. By degrees, he brought the conversation back to Grant, and the Civil War, and the phenomenon of what he called self-invented man; that strange, American ability to be two completely different people in one lifetime. Sam Grant had been a total failure, did Tryst know that?
"Before the war he was a nothing, a nobody, ordinary and obscure. The truth was," Twain lowered his voice to a whisper, "Grant did drink before the war. Maybe even once or twice during the war. And yet, in the fiery crucible of battle, Grant had actually created a whole new self, a second nature. Sam Grant was a flop. U.S. Grant turned out to possess the mysterious powers of a giant."
"Sam Grant, Sam Clemens," Tryst thought.
"You can live a small life," Mark Twain said, "or a big one."
VIII. AMERICAN THEME TWO: THE MAN OF ACTION VS. THE INTELLECTUAL
The other theme that I wanted to point out to you is the theme of the conflict between the man of action, like Jackson, and the intellectual, like Jefferson. This is an enduring American theme. To subdue a continent in the way this continent was subdued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a physical action. To come from the Atlantic to the Pacific is, above all, a physical event.
There is a good case for saying that the most important response or feelings Americans had, during the first half of the nineteenth century, anyway, was to geography. The immense expanses of American life.
I was just out on the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico last week. You can still see the wagon ruts where these people crossed. And you stop in the middle of the Santa Fe Trail and look around, and it is, even now, so vast and empty that there is really nothing-- no landmark, no trees mark the distance forever.
I was amazed that these people had crossed all of this to come here. The hardihood, the physical effect. So that is the action part. The intellectual was always the Jefferson part. Going back from this, being superior to it, in some ways at war with the action part.
In my book, I had the action man, who was Grant, who came to life as the general; and I had the intellectual, who was the Harvard professor Henry Adams. I put them together in a kind of tremendous conflict, both as writers-- Grant is a great, an important writer-- and Henry Adams is an important writer. His "Education of Henry Adams" was named the number one book on the Modern Library List of the great books of the twentieth century. But, he was, I decided, the nineteenth century's leading twirp. He was a really awful little guy. I just found myself disliking him very much.
I thought I would show you how I put together the theme of the man of action, the General, and the man of letters, Adams the intellectual. This is a short little passage, page 211. It is not Grant, it is General Sherman, who is standing in for the man of action here, and he is coming to dinner. This scene is true, he came to dinner at the Adams house. Whether he said or did exactly this, we don't know. But the narrator is my invented character Tryst, and there is a reference to the fact that Tryst is missing one arm from the battle, and then there is a kind of collision. We know that, more or less, this is how Sherman behaved, and I know this is exactly how Adams behaved.
General Sherman was late, hungry, stupendously dramatic. He came through the front door and into the cluttered Adams house like a red-headed bombshell, one hour and thirty goddamn minutes late, as he announced, spreading his arms, cursing the train, dropping a muddy cloak from his shoulders to the carpet, as every face in the house turned toward him.
"Jupiter Pluvius rains," he cried, and shook his hands to show how wet they were. As if on cue, lightning cracked. A thunderclap rolled over the roof, and ladies and Mr. Styler shrieked, and then for the next two tumultuous hours, Sherman transformed the house into a theater of personality.
If Mars himself had blazed into the fragile, porcelain world of the Adamses, the effect could have hardly been less shattering. Sherman gathered a drink in each hand, marched from lady to lady, introducing himself with a bow and a leer, paused to wrap both arms, not spilling a drop, around his niece in greeting, winked over her shoulder, first at Tryst, then at Henry Adams, who literally recoiled three steps towards his books.
In the second parlor, while one of the ladies played muted but martial chords on a piano, Sherman recited passages from Dickens, Shakespeare. Studying Tryst's empty sleeve, he launched into a series of war stories, each one funnier than the one before.
[We skip a little....]
He asked, "Where did you lose your arm?" Tryst told him, "Cold Harbor."
"Under the Red," Sherman said. "When I was in Georgia, somebody wrote me a seriously crazy letter. It could have been Mark Twain, craziest man I know, said, General, why not fill all your shells and bullets with snuff? When they explode, the Confederates will be sneezing so hard, your people can just walk up and take them. Somebody else said, The war could be over in a week. Just make all the Union bayonets one foot longer than Confederates'."
[Clover asks General Sherman to tell how he made his famous march through Georgia; and I've put in something Sherman often, we know, did.]
Sherman grinned. The Adams servants had set up two long tables of food in the dining room and another smaller table nearby. From one of the long tables, Sherman gathered spoons, knives, a handful of tiny salt and pepper shakers.
"Rebels," he said, lining the pepper shakers up around a soup bowl.
"Atlanta, us, Joe Hood's troops." In loud, snapping commands, as if the little spoons and shakers would jump to life and start to march, he maneuvered them left and right, around the defenseless, bewildered soup bowl. Somebody handed him a candle. Sherman swung it fluttering above Atlanta, leaving a trail of smoke in the air. Clover pushed a teacup forward to represent McPherson.
Sherman showed his yellow teeth and a wolf's smile.
"You remember what Jeff Davis said when we started?" Clover shook her head. To Tryst's surprise, it was Henry Adams's patrician drawl that answered.
"He said you would meet the same fate as Napoleon when he invaded Russia."
"And Grant," said Sherman cackling, "Grant said, 'Who's gonna furnish all that Moscow snow in Georgia?"
He drove his little army forward, calling out the names of battles, set the soup bowl rocking, said, "Ah, Jonesborough," and suddenly swept the rebel saltshakers off the tablecloth with a pudding knife and a clatter. "Next stop, Charleston."
"Oh, dessert first," murmured Henry Adams.
IX. QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
So, I will be delighted to try and answer any questions, written or otherwise...
GL: The questions will duplicate each other. We've covered things already, like what attracted you to the characters, why did you choose them, did you just make up the story, what motivated you... we've covered a lot of those. Now, the first thing that comes up is that it's not just a good story, it's real. You touched on it when you said, somebody suggested making the bayonets a foot longer.
At lunch, I asked Max: "I read the rabbits; is that real?"-- remember where the little rabbits are frightened?-- and he said yes. A bunch of people have asked, for instance, how and where did you find so many incredible facts to include in your story? Or, where were you able to find all the detailed historical information you use in the book? Where do you find this stuff? How does a writer work?
MB: Well, there are really two places to look. One is just in the library. The library shelf here, and in any other big library, on the Civil War is just enormous. It was the most written-about event in American history. I didn't read everything about it, but I read everything about Grant that I could. Grant's papers are published, by the University of Southern Illinois Press-- all his letters, his orders, his military records-- and I read virtually all of that. I read newspapers from the time on microfilm, an awful experience.
That's where most old newspapers are kept. All of the business about the Washington Post, for instance; I read all the early issues of the Washington Post on microfilm, and other papers. Grant's funeral details come largely from the newspaper accounts of what happened.
So you read scholarly books and editions, you read the newspapers, and then the other thing you do-- or I do, anyway-- is go to the place. When I wrote about Jefferson, it was a joke, but it was also serious; I wanted to be in Paris, and see what was left of Jefferson's Paris.
One of the things I can't forgive Andrew Jackson for is not ever having gone to Paris. I had to do my research in Nashville, and it's really not the same. But I did go down to see the battlefield, of the Battle of New Orleans, for Jackson.
In the case of Grant, I went to Civil War battlefields in Virginia. Especially, I went to the battlefield at Cold Harbor, where Grant ordered his troops into what turned out to be a hopeless, suicidal assault. It was after that horrible morning at Cold Harbor that he was known as Grant the Butcher, because he had sent so many men forward to die. That was the great battle where the men knew they were doomed, and they wrote their names on slips of paper (there were no dog tags), and stuck these slips of paper to their uniforms so that, when they were dead, somebody could identify the body.
That was a terrible morning in American life. And the battlefield, like most Civil War battlefields, is still preserved. So you can go and look. I may be kidding myself, but you do get a certain feeling that doesn't come from books, when you're on the ground and looking at that.
I was on the Santa Fe Trail for the same reason; if I wrote about it, I would never get from a photograph or a book the feeling of absolute loneliness, emptiness, that these pioneers struggled through. So that's where I look.
GL: Following up on that, there were a number of questions like, do you feel war is murder? Or is it a necessary part of change? Do you feel Grant is a murderer, or a hero? How do you feel about war today, and how has it changed? We were talking last time about that scene in which Twain tries say, what is it about Grant? He's able to do what has to be done. There were a number of questions along [those lines].
MB: I don't have any particular beliefs about war, one way or the other. About Grant and war, I can say that he certainly was accused of being the butcher. On the other hand, when all the dust had settled, and some years after the war the statistics were added up, it turned out that Robert E. Lee had lost more men than Grant, both absolutely and in proportion. The difference was that Robert E. Lee was graceful and sad looking, a rather eloquent man, and he looked the part of a tragic figure. People like Robert E. Lee.
Grant was an unimpressive physical presence. He made no attempt to sell himself at all. And as a general-- and all the generals whose works I read agreed-- Grant was far better than Robert E. Lee. But he was better in a way that cost lives in massive numbers, several times.
Not always. He took Vicksburg almost without a shot. It was one of the most brilliant maneuvers in American military history. But when he had to fight back through Virginia, Grant and Grant alone apparently realized that the only way to win in Virginia was to wade your way through Confederate bodies until they stopped. There was no other way to win that victory. Lincoln almost gave up and then realized that Grant was right.
So what Mark Twain was saying, when George was referring to that little scene, is that Grant knew what had to be done. And he knew it was awful. He knew it was just about unbearable. But there was no other choice as far as he saw, and so he did it. And that is a very responsible and adult thing to do, however awful it looked. Twain, who was always a bit of a comic and a joker, in several sober moments recognized that he couldn't have done it. The American people subsequently realized that, really, almost nobody could have done it.
Without Lincoln we wouldn't have won the war, but without Grant, we wouldn't have won that war, either. The two were necessary. So, mind you, Grant rose to the moment, and it was a horrible moment.
GL: You had the sequence I was thinking of on pages 339 to 342-- when Twain was thinking about his experience of the war. He and a bunch of his buds and poured (??) themselves as some irregulars. And finally, when the Union troops got close (he was a Confederate), around page 340, Twain-- would you read that? "After we fired our vollies at that perfect stranger..."-- so finally, they kill a man.
MB: Twain wrote all this up in something called The Private History of the Campaign That Failed, that came out in December of 1885.
GL: They've been having fun playing soldiers, and now they have to actually kill somebody.
MB: "After we fired our vollies at that perfect stranger," Twain said, modulating his speech to something soft, accentless, even maudlin, "we all crept steadily out to see our victim. He was lying on his back in the moonlight. His chest was heaving, and his white shirtfront was splashed with blood. The thought went through me that I was a murderer, that I had killed a man, a man who had never done me any harm, and that was the coldest sensation that ever went through my marrow."
GL: The follow up to that is, the part where he had the realization about what war was. Would you read that part about the war, and go through to Grant...
MB: Yes, Tryst is remembering that Twain has left out something from the story and Twain says he left out the part about war.
He nodded glumly. "Part about how that man that we shot wasn't in uniform, he wasn't even armed, how I couldn't drive away the thought that taking that unoffending life was a wicked, wanton thing, and it seemed like the epitome of war to me, what war really was. Killing strangers in cold blood, strangers you would help if you found them in trouble, or they would help you, that made me see the true nature of war, which is murder, and so I fled."
Indeed, Twain fled out here to California. He came first out to what is basically Reno, and then he came out to California. He deserted the Confederate Army.
GL: That's what he was doing out here when he wrote, "Celebrate a _____________."
MB: Yes, he had deserted the Confederate Army. And then I'll just finish... Twain says, "That's the nature of war: murder." And Tryst says, "That was what Grant did." And Twain replies, "And we admired and worshipped him for it." Twain's smile was bleak. He was a man, and he faced up to the world, good and bad. And I was a child." A slow melancholy pause. "I don't have a shred of religion," Twain said. "To a child, a grown-up man can look like a god."
GL: I think this is enormously relevant right now. A number of people have been asking about it. This course is American Values, and we're trying to think about it now. The crisis, almost, that we're reaching now is of acknowledging that love is stronger than hate.
But the only reason slaves finally got freed, after sixty years of talking, was that Grant got so many people killed. We're starting to face up again to this moment simultaneously that there's nothing glorious about war, it's awful. Killing strangers that you would actually help if you met them, one by one. Yet, apparently, sometimes even that has to be done for the greater good.
And the people who can face up to, in your terms, face that horrifying fact, are necessary and valuable, and actually there's not going to be any freedom without them. How long did they talk about slavery-- how many people died during slavery, 19 million? It was godless-- it was like the concentration camps lasted an extra sixty years while they tried to work it out. And they never worked it out. It got worse.
And we're trying-- nice people-- to undo so much of our education and training, which is all to say, everybody is nice, everybody has their point of view, we're going to work it out. We're trying to face up to the fact that there are people who have interpreted that as weakness, and an invitation to kill us. This is a very contemporary crisis. Thoughts about this, anybody?
(end of tape-- part of conversation cut)
St1: I think it's a very different time. You can't compare the standards, like it was okay for them to fight back then and sacrifice their lives. It's a completely different situation. We have so much more technology and we're supposed to be so much more advanced, because we already went through this. We had the Civil War and lost so many lives we didn't have to lose. It's a lot different now. I don't think there are the same expectations.
(tape cut out. Re-enter mid-sentence)
GL: ...Jackson and Grant has probably thought about this. Would you care to address it? They hear me all the time.
MB: Well, actually, the passage I was just reading is not made up. It's made up in the sense that other scenes are made up, that Twain didn't visit the Washington Post and talk with this imaginary character and so on, but the words are more or less lifted and rearranged from his own writings. The facts about Grant's life are there, too.
Twain really thought that. That was the conclusion that he reached, that he and most people didn't have what it took to be a Grant; but that, from time to time, a Grant had to be. So these terms of this debate or evaluation really aren't even mine. They're pretty much the nineteenth century's take on it. And it may be that those are out of date. I don't know.
GL: That's a pretty interesting point. Because as a historical novelist, so many people ask, "Are you Tryst? Is this your point of view? What are you arguing?" But one of the things that's coming out here is that you seem to see your role, Max, as letting the characters expose themselves. You refuse to get into it. You say, "Okay, that was what Twain said." You're bringing us into contact with what they were actually saying and thinking.
MB: Yes, that's true. The great literary critic Sam Goldwyn said that if you have a message, go to Western Union. Most writers don't write with a message, a moral, some conclusion they want you to reach-- that is, writers of fiction. Essay writers do. So yes, the historical novelist doesn't really take sides. The goal is to re-imagine the past vividly so that you can step back in it or look in it, not to tell you what to think about it. There are characters in there who don't like Grant very much at all, and that was true as well.
Putting those together, I'll just say another word about that-- when you make up a scene, sometimes people have said, in this or other novels, "Well, did Jefferson really say that? Or did Jackson?" And sometimes I can't remember. But mostly, the dialogue is taken out of letters, diaries, journals that people have kept that we really have. Much of this voice is reconstructed out of original documents, so it's pretty reliable.
Jefferson was the only historical novel that was ever reviewed in the American Historical Review. They took it as a work of history, and I was very pleased by that.
GL: Let me interpose before I go to break: Elizabeth Cameron, who there are a lot of questions about: she's real. She didn't have the affair with Tryst, but she had it with somebody else, and it's very well documented.
St2: I have a question about Mark Twain. Usually when Mark Twain is Mark Twain, he's a character in a book, like in Huckleberry Finn. Do you think most of the passages you chose that are established (??) as Mark Twain are him taking that persona?
MB: He was very confused by who he was. It was hard at any given moment to know if he was being Mark Twain or Sam Clemens, so I took most of what he says out of his published records that are his diaries. He kept long diary entries. He worshipped General Grant. He went down to have lunch with him every time he could, and most of what he says there comes out of his private diaries. So if that makes him more Sam Clemens than Mark Twain, I guess that's the case.
Those are all across the Bay in Berkeley, by the way.
St2: It was perfect seeing him as a really good character, really nice comic relief for a lot of parts.
MB: That's what he was meant to be, and that's how Mark Twain spent a lot of his time: being a comical fellow. It was only at the end that he let down his guard, at the end of his life. Most of the time, he never stopped joking.
GL: This is a technical question. "I noticed that throughout the book, some words such as 'Truly', 'Rewarded', 'Virtue', 'Tribute', and more were capitalized. Was there a point, was there a method, was this more of an eighteenth century...?" MB: Those may just come from direct quotations or the style of the time. One of the things we didn't mention, this is a book about writing. The two most influential writers in the nineteenth century in America were Grant, whose book, as I said, has never been out of print; and Mark Twain. And if you want to see why that's the case, if you look at American prose before those two-- look at Edgar Allen Poe or Washington Irving, and then look at Grant and Twain --you can see there's a huge divide.
Just as the Civil War divided American life in half-- before the war and after the war-- American prose before Grant and Twain is very elaborate, convoluted. Very literary. And afterwards it's on the road to becoming Hemingway's spare, austere, rather stern style that both Twain and Grant wrote.
GL: Someone remarked, "The language sucked me into its world. It reads like a soap opera, a historical soap opera which I could not put down. 'For all her brilliance, Clover Adams was a flat, plain woman with pallid skin and a hooked nose. Next to Elizabeth, she looked drab. But then next to Elizabeth, most women looked drab. Drab as cabbages.'" We haven't talked about the quality of your prose, which is lovely.
St3: Who are you going to write about next?
MB: I don't know. I was out on the Santa Fe Trail wondering the same thing. I haven't made a decision. Just taking my time. Do you know anybody with a 'J'?
St3: You could do Giuliani?
MB: I don't want to get into the twentieth century here. I'd rather stay back in the distant, safe past. Certainly not anybody that's alive now.
GL: Debbie R. says, "Many times in the book, characters mention that the country after the Civil War is completely different than what it was before. What are some of these differences? Was it more a change in zeitgeist? The way people lived? Their outlooks?
MB: Well, this takes us back to where I began. It's a very good place to end. I said universities have a hard time dealing with generals and with businessmen. One simple way to gauge how different life after the Civil War was from life before the Civil War is to look at a man who has probably not appeared in any of your history books as more than just a passing name. You could argue that in the last 500 years, nobody has changed human life more than Thomas Edison.
Turn out all the lights, turn off your radio, turn off your phonograph. And he improved the telephone.... Without Edison, we would not be living the life that we are living now. Edison was a magnificent businessman. He was probably a better businessman than inventor, and he was a great inventor.
But Edison is after the Civil War. Edison is released. War has a way of making people invent things and devise gadgets and so on. Edison is post-Civil War. I included Edison in all those lights coming on, and the experiments with the lights down in lower Manhattan, because that was the visible, spectacular change: the coming of electric light. Just imagine without it what life was like. The coming of electric light, which is right after the Civil War. That, and the presence of the telephone. Those are two easy ways to see how things were incredibly different. Light and dark.
GL: Thanks very much.