The General and Julia

Written by Jon Clinch
Review by Joanne Vickers

In the author’s note, Clinch asserts: “We understand the hearts and minds of our loved ones not by the use of some analytical recording device but by genuine moments of attention, imagination, and sympathy.” This novel accomplishes exactly that understanding of Ulysses S. Grant.

The plot follows Grant as he writes his memoirs despite the fact that he is painfully dying of metastasized throat cancer; he does so in hopes that the memoirs will provide his financially reduced family with some security. Grant recounts the story of his life from the time he first met Julia Dent when he was a young lieutenant, the harrowing years of the Civil War, his two-term presidency, financial ruin at the hands of an unscrupulous financier in New York City, and finally his last days with his beloved wife and children at home.

Clinch paints a fully realized, complicated picture of Grant against the backdrop of his times, including his belief in the human and civil rights of Black Americans and his chagrin at the political developments in the postwar South. Clinch’s dialogue is evocative and crisp. Even minor characters—such as Grant’s irascible father-in-law—come alive. The general’s friendship with Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) receives special, imaginative treatment. This is historical writing at its best.