The state of Grant historiography

Grant scholar Brooks Simpson was good enough to comment on my recent post on two new Grant books. His ideas on the state of Grant historiography are very interesting.

For new Grant studies to be looking to Allan Nevins' old work for guidance is a bad thing, I remarked last week, which is the starting point for these observations:

Nevins's pronouncements on Grant came from his biography of Hamilton Fish -- a large, partially-digested narrative built around Fish's self-serving diary, with a spin that embraced the anti-Grant perspectives of Jacob D. Cox and others. Nevins was so attached to this find that he would not share it with William B. Hesseltine, who was working on a biography of Grant that remains the fullest study of his presidency (McFeely offered a selective riff, Smith a dry synthesis of existing work; Perret doesn't even qualify as a real scholarly biography).

Anyone who actually reads the original diary, as I have, finds all sorts of things left out or distorted. If you read the Nevins spin, you wonder why Fish was such a Grant man; if you read the original, you see that Grant could play him like a violin at times, telling him what he needed to hear, coddling Fish's ego, and so on. Fish was a valuable advisor and sounding board, but guess who made the choices, even when he decided to follow Fish's advice.

The anti-president Grant synthesis is something to behold. It's so intense that the same historian could be found attacking Grant from being too radical in 1955 and too conservative in the 1980s (C. Vann Woodward is the historian in question). Korda's book is based on old scholarship, as a glance at the notes will reveal; Bunting's talked to various people and come up with a fairly good book. Unfortunately, the problem with some reviewers is that they know what they know, never question what they know, never admit that they might not know everything, and review books according to how closely they reaffirm what they already know.

Historians are reassessing Grant as president: any reviewer who claims otherwise is ignorant. Nor is Bunting the spearhead of this movement; he's an early synthesis, albeit an insightful one, of earlier revisionist work. My concern is that revisionism not become apologia; I believe a perspective on Grant that is honestly critical without simply depending on the writings of his foes and critics is quite possible, and that for such a perspective to be meaningful it must be set within historical context. That's the problem right now: Perret comes close to being an apologist, and Smith is much, much too easy, equating good intentions with performance. But such is what passes for a scholarship that's written in response to other scholarship and not through an examination of the record.