U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth / Edition 1

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Overview

At the time of his death, Ulysses S. Grant was the most famous person in America, considered by most citizens to be equal in stature to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet today his monuments are rarely visited, his military reputation is overshadowed by that of Robert E. Lee, and his presidency is permanently mired at the bottom of historical rankings.

In an insightful blend of biography and cultural history, Joan Waugh traces Grant's shifting national and international reputation, illuminating the role of memory in our understanding of American history. Using a wide range of written and visual sources--newspaper articles, private and public reminiscences, photographs, paintings, cartoons, poetry, and much more--Waugh reveals how Grant became the embodiment of the American nation in the decades after the Civil War. She does not paper over Grant's image as a scandal-ridden contributor to the worst excesses of the Gilded Age. Instead, she captures a sense of what led nineteenth-century Americans to overlook Grant's obvious faults and hold him up as a critically important symbol of national reconciliation and unity. Waugh further shows that Grant's reputation and place in public memory closely parallel the rise and fall of the northern version of the Civil War story--in which the United States was the clear, morally superior victor and Grant was the symbol of that victory. By the 1880s, Waugh shows, after the failure of Reconstruction, the dominant Union myths about the war gave way to a southern version that emphasized a more sentimental remembrance of the honor and courage of both sides and ennobled the "Lost Cause." During this social transformation, Grant's public image changed as well. By the 1920s, his reputation had plummeted.

Most Americans today are unaware of how revered Grant was in his lifetime. Joan Waugh uncovers the reasons behind the rise and fall of his renown, underscoring as well the fluctuating memory of the Civil War itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…we have the question that stands at the heart of Waugh's exceptionally thoughtful and valuable book: "Why did Grant's star shine so brightly for Americans of his own day, and why has it been eclipsed so completely for Americans since at least the mid-twentieth century?" Though there can be no final, definitive answer to either part of the question, Waugh…provides intelligent, plausible suggestions. Not merely that, but at a time when too many professional historians employ unintelligible academic jargon, she writes clear prose that is readily accessible to the serious general reader.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
How does national memory determine national heroes? Waugh, a UCLA history professor, probes the subject in an engaging study of the making of Ulysses S. Grant's reputation. At the time of his death in 1885, he was perceived as on a level with George Washington by former Unionists and Confederates alike. His memoirs were a bestseller. His image combined the honorable soldier and the generous victor: a heroic war leader who believed in the ideal of national reconciliation in both regional and racial contexts. Even Grant's flaws were part of his greatness, linking him to his countrymen in a distinctively American fashion. That image began to change as lost cause romanticism nurtured reinterpreting the Civil War as not merely tragic but arguably unnecessary. The eclipse of this approach has restored Grant's reputation as a general. Now his presidency is the target of criticism: corrupt, ineffective and above all incomplete in terms of the racial issue. Waugh convincingly interprets Grant as “symboliz[ing] both the hopes and the lost dreams” of the Civil War. But while that war remains our defining—and dividing—event, Grant's image, Waugh says, will remain ambiguous. 69 illus., 3 maps. (Nov. 15)
Library Journal
Waugh (history, Univ. of California, Los Angeles) explores the gap between historical perspective and collective memory that often shifts our sense of events or of figures within political, social, and economic contexts. Drawing upon Thomas L. Connelly's groundbreaking The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society and David W. Blight's more recent acclaimed Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, she delves into the legacy of Ulysses S. Grant. Considering why, in the next century, Grant disappeared from popular memory, Waugh argues that after World War I a disillusioned population shunned the brutalities of war that Grant represented and that he was overshadowed by Robert E. Lee, who became closely identified with the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. By the early 1990s, Grant's reputation began to rise again as Lost Cause themes were dispelled and Grant's tomb was reopened to the public after a restoration. Ken Burns's award-winning Civil War documentary also showed Grant sympathetically. VERDICT This is a well-researched and scholarly work that Civil War enthusiasts will enjoy, provided they understand it's not meant to be a military or presidential biography. It would be an excellent supplementary text for graduate students and a welcome addition for academic libraries.—Gayla Koerting, Nebraska State Hist. Soc., Lincoln
From the Publisher
"A well-written and thoroughly researched examination of Ulysses S. Grant's place in public memory. . . . Waugh's enthusiasm for her subject is evident, resulting in an informative and richly detailed study. . . . An invaluable addition to the studies of our eighteenth president."--Southwestern Historical Quarterly

"Waugh's love for her subject is palpable. Her story of Grant's last years of life, where he raced to complete his Memoirs before dying, is visceral."--RALPH

"As impressively distilled a brief for Grant as one is likely to find."--The Journal of American History

"The publication of this book is a major event in Civil War historiography. . . . Masterfully intertwines historical fact about Grant's life with the development of his reputation. . . . A wonderful book."--The Journal of Mississippi History

"A fine book. General readers will find it engaging and enjoyable, and historians interested in the memory of the Civil War will find it essential."--The North Carolina Historical Review

"An outstanding book. Reminds us that 'cultural wars' are not a recent phenomenon. . . . By insightfully analyzing the myths, emotions, facts, and politics of the public memory of Grant, Waugh demonstrates the critical importance of defining the past."--H-Civil War

"Throughout, Waugh's narrative is a sensitive and humane account that reveals the strength of combining biography and history, where the depth available in the former compellingly illuminates the larger trends and issues that define the latter."--Civil War Book Review

"In an insightful blend of biography and cultural history, Joan Waugh's U.S. Grant traces Grant's shifting national and international reputation, illuminating the role of memory in our understanding of American history."--McCormick Messenger

"Engrossing. . . . Grant's full vindication . . . still awaits. But when it comes, we will better understand our complicated history, and historians and citizens will have Joan Waugh to thank for helping to make this belated illumination possible." Sean Wilentz, The New Republic on-line review

"This is a book that should be in any serious Civil War enthusiast's collection. Ms. Waugh writes in flowing prose that makes the pages fly by. There is plenty to learn for the casual reader and more than enough material to satisfy serious scholars of Ulysses S. Grant."--This Mighty Scourge

"An excellent, tightly concise but full-life biography of Grant. . . . This is not . . . traditional history, or revisionist history, but rather an exquisite act of recounting and balancing those and other perspectives while drawing them all toward a greater understanding."--The Weekly Standard

"[A] vigorous and highly readable study"--The Washington Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807833179
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2009
  • Series: Civil War America Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 787,110
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Waugh is professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is author or coeditor of three books, including Wars within a War: Controversy and Conflict over the American Civil War.
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Good Book

    I enjoyed this book very much. It is amazing how such a popular figure during his life is now regarded with much disdain. I found the book very thought provoking and I now have a new appreciation for Grant.

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