Matthew Arnold is famous as a snob, and on this side of the pond, an anti-American one. So it should be no surprise to anybody then or now that Arnold wrote a somewhat condescending essay about General Grant, throwing in some criticisms about American smugness for good measure.
Put those aside, and General Grant by Matthew Arnold with a Rejoinder by Mark Twain seems to be a pretty enthusiastic endorsement of Grant’s Personal Memoirs for a British audience.
Writing in 1886, Arnold starts by lamenting why Grant’s Memoirs haven’t sold more copies since their recent publication in the UK. It was understandable for Arnold that Europeans didn’t care enough about the exploits of what Americans call (at least according to Arnold) “the greatest nation upon earth.” But it was also about personalities. “Then, too, General Grant, the central figure of these Memoirs, is not to the English imagination the hero of the American Civil War; the hero is Lee, and of Lee the Memoirs tell us little.”
Nonetheless, Arnold thinks that the Memoirs deserve more attention in Britain because Grant’s writing, though not an example of an elegant prose style, is clear and powerful and because Grant himself was a military commander on par with the greatest with a simple, honest character.
From the beginning of the war until he took Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Grant “was always the same strong man, showing the same valuable qualities.” Though lacking the “pathos and dignity of Lee” and the “fire, the celerity, the genial cordiality of Sherman,” Grant “certainly had a good deal of the character and qualities which we justly respect in the Duke of Wellington,” which was high praise indeed from a British writer of the late 19th century.
Wholly free from show, parade, and pomposity; sensible and sagacious; scanning closely the situation, seeing things as they actually were, then making up his mind as to the right thing to be done under the circumstances, and doing it; never flurried, never vacillating, but also not stubborn, able to reconsider and change his plans, a man of resource; when, however, he had really fixed on the best course to take, the right nail to drive, resolutely and tenaciously persevering, driving the nail hard home–Grant was all this, and surely in all this he resembles the Duke of Wellington.
Historians today may credit Grant’s success with intelligence greater than just determination, a unique strategic ability to envision the whole war rather than just a single theater as Lee did, but given how much the British seem to admire their bulldog leaders, from Cromwell to Churchill, we can also assume that Arnold meant his praise for Grant’s focus as high praise.
Twain’s brief but disappointing response, to frown on Arnold for slighting Grant’s grammar, felt petty. Twain could’ve mounted a much stronger defense of his hero and given a much better sales pitch for the magnum opus that he himself published.
This little book is of most interest to see the impression that Grant’s achievement and character made on one of the most eminent Victorians.