Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year. By Charles Bracelen Flood. Da Capo. $27.50.
True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life. By Kevin Sorbo. Da Capo. $26.
The notion of “facing down death” is popular in heroic fiction, but real life – and real death – are another matter. No one faces death down, but some face it with far greater equanimity than others. The phrase “death with dignity” has become a watchword of proponents of hospice care and assisted suicide, but it is far more applicable to the final year of Ulysses S. Grant, whose body was ravaged by throat and mouth cancer just when his personal circumstances and those of his family were at their lowest ebb. Grant, famously naïve about monetary matters, had lent his name and given all his family’s money to what would later come to be called a Ponzi scheme – and he had lost everything. He started his memoirs in an attempt – successful, but not until after his death – to provide for those he loved. Mark Twain, who had become Grant’s friend and who published the memoirs, found Grant’s writing exemplary and the memoir tremendously valuable – a judgment generally shared by historians and critics right up to today. Charles Bracelen Flood, author of Lee: The Last Years, creates a fast-paced and highly informative book about Lee’s great opponent in Grant’s Final Victory. Told through letters, telegrams, newspaper articles and research that ranges from expected academic sources to a book by Grant’s granddaughter, Princess Julia Catacuzene (who was nine years old when Grant died), Flood’s book balances the sadness of Grant’s physical decline with an appreciation of the near-heroic measures he used to keep himself writing. Indeed, Twain believed that creating the memoirs is what kept Grant alive so long – the former president and general died three days after finishing them. Legal depositions involving the unraveling of the firm of Grant & Ward appear here side by side with remarkable photos of Grant, his family and those who were significant in his life: P.T. Barnum, Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and William Scott Hancock, magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson, onetime Grant friend and assistant Adam Badeau (who later betrayed Grant’s trust in him), and many others. A photo of Grant himself, only weeks from death, is tremendously moving in a way that all the narrative of heroism, preservation of the Union and a two-term presidency is not. The respect accorded Grant by former Confederates is one of the most telling parts of this story, and the great love felt for him by his wife and children is another. Grant, whose reputation has had many ups and downs over the years, emerges from this heartwarming portrait not as a hard-edged, hard-drinking soldier and severely flawed leader of a reunited nation – as some biographies have portrayed him – but as a concerned, capable, loving and supremely determined man whose military brilliance was perhaps matched, and to an extent undone, by his tremendous naïveté in political and financial matters. Grant’s Final Victory is intended not so much to be revisionist history as to be corrective history. Many of its most telling elements are the small ones: “By four in the afternoon [of the day of Grant’s death] Bloomingdale’s department store had sold over six miles of black crepe.”
Confrontation with death in a far more modern setting is the subject of True Strength, the story of TV actor Kevin Sorbo – who, at the height of his career in 1997, had three very atypical strokes in a single day. Unlike Grant, who accepted his diagnosis of fatal cancer (caused by many years of cigar smoking) with equanimity and a determination to do the best he could in the time remaining to him, Sorbo refuses to take a possible death sentence at face value; that is no longer the way Americans handle such things. He almost lost his left arm because of an aneurysm – but doctors saved it by thinning his blood so much that he could have bled to death if he had moved too much. When the immediate crisis had passed, Sorbo began years of battling back physically and mentally: physical therapy, psychiatric help, and alternative as well as conventional medicine all played their parts. True Strength is a typical modern memoir by a typical modern minor celebrity, of interest primarily to Sorbo’s fans and fans of the TV show Hercules, the Legendary Journeys, on which Sorbo starred in the 1990s. There are the usual behind-the-scenes-of-the-entertainment-world elements to keep fans interested, of course. “A go-see is a two- or three-hour time slot when invited models show their books, making small talk while the photographer or art director pages through their portfolios. They are usually cattle calls, with lots of bored-looking models hanging around, waiting their turns. Modeling is such an odd business. ‘Hi. Here are pictures of me. Aren’t I great? Please book me. Please.’” And there is what passes for the usual sort of self-revelation, as when Sorbo first confronts his recovery chances: “My goal is for a complete recovery to the heroic, invincible, driven man I have been my whole life. Here this guy [a doctor] is telling me I shouldn’t even want that. His words singe me. I flush, from embarrassment or nerves; his perspective blazes on my skin and puts a pit in my stomach.” True Strength has a deliberately upbeat tone and message, with Sorbo working his way back into acting and becoming head of a mentoring program for inner-city teens. This is all very admirable and will be inspirational for some people – specifically, for Sorbo’s fans. The chapters contributed by various people in Sorbo’s life will likewise be of interest to fans. But in the long run, there is nothing very special about Sorbo’s determination or his road back to health, and nothing very special about him, either, except his modest level of celebrity. Certainly his story is worth cheering, as is the tale of anyone’s recovery from a life-threatening condition. But True Strength is not a book designed to appeal to everyone; it is a book for fans of an actor who want to get some vicarious pleasure out of reading about his trials and triumphs.