So John Y. Simon finally won something. "Hey, I edited 26 volumes of Grant's papers and all I got was this Gettysburg College t-shirt."
Well, more than a t-shirt, he got $20,000 from Gabor Borritt's friend, the civic minded New York businessman Lew Lehrman, conveyed through a vehicle misnamed the Lincoln Prize. (And he didn't really wisecrack about the t-shirt. That was blogger-style fun.)
Simon holds somewhere within himself a critique of Civil War publishing. We know because he lets out these remarks, these insights that hint how well onto this rum business he is. The problem is hunting down his work and then sifting his words for the really good stuff. His best known comment appeared parenthetically in a New York Times book review written by someone else quoting him. As a metaphor for the widespread puerility and repitition in Civil War publishing, Simon had noted that Civil War readers are like young children who want to hear the same bedtime story every night told in exactly the same way. The reviewer used Simon's quote against an author and the angry letters followed.
Children and their bedtime stories. That's a fairly brilliant way to express the predicament of Civil War publishing. It may not have been entirely fair to go after the readers, but they are driving the market and, as we saw two weeks ago, Jeff Shaara has defined that mass Civil War audience for us very well. As he says, they are a group entirely innocent of history whose interest has been temporarily piqued by a movie, TV show or some other ephemeral mass entertainment.
I had seen Simon's "children" remark a long time after reading his essay on Grant and Lincoln in Gabor Borritt's old anthology Lincoln's Generals. It was an essay that anchored the collection and impressed me, flying as it did, in the face of the collective wisdom of Williams, Williams, Nevins, Catton, McPherson and their legions of copycats.
It rejected much of the myth of Lincoln finding a general. It painted, succinctly in a summary review, a deeply troubled relationship in which (this is my characterization), Lincoln persisted in his bad early war behavior to the discomfort and embarassment of the man who was expected to win the later war for him.
Thus, there is, through Simon, an alternative storyline for 1864, one that has Grant go into the relationship conscious of his vulnerability, sensitive to the fact that he might be "McClellanized" (in his own brilliant coinage, recorded by General John Schofield). There is pathos in watching Grant set up different kinds of plans, intitiatives and command structures to sidestep McClellanization by the Administration. Almost fruitless, these schemes.
And to make matters worse for Grant, there is that curious time in the war when feeler after feeler is extended to McClellan to return to the high command, beginning at a point before the 1864 spring campaign is launched and extending through summer.
Had Mac responded positively to any of the Adminsitration's overtures, Grant would have been well and truly McClellanized by Lincoln in every possible sense of the word.
I should let Simon summarize for himself: "[Lincoln] held the reins and taught Grant what was permitted and what was forbidden." Later in life, Grant papered over their vast differences. "...Grant succumbed to the sentimentality of the age. He created the impression that mutual harmony and respect had existed from their first meeting and persisted until Lincoln's death. In reality, however, Grant and Lincoln forged an effective partnership in a turmoil of clashing authority."
This turmoil of clashing authority points the way to great future possibilities in Civil War publishing. But change comes slowly here, and it may be another lifetime before Simon - or anyone working Simon's themes - scores a prize for work like this.
As they used to say about our GI paychecks: "Hey Simon ... don't spend all of that dough in one place." It's going to have to last quite awhile.