Photography has the powerful ability to record physical traces left by history on a place. No Perfect Heroes: Photographing Grant, an iBook by Charles Traub, published recently by INTERLOCUTORPRESS, follows the marks left on American history by Ulysses S. Grant, celebrated, maligned, forgotten and remembered Major General of the Union Army and 18th President of the United States. Traub looks for Grant in places where he lived and fought, and in monuments built in his honor. There are images of his birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio, where signs charging $3 admission and banning firearms frame a modest screen door. An array of historical plaques fill the sky near Fort Henry, in Wickliffe, Kentucky, the site of Grant’s first major victory during the war; at Shiloh National Military Park, in Tennessee, sun breaks through clouds at the site of the bloodiest battle in U.S. history at the time it was fought in 1862; a boy slides down a grassy embankment in Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, where Grant’s armies converged on the Confederate stronghold. There are also images of places from Grant’s post-war life—a stained bedspread in a wallpapered room in the cottage where he wrote his memoirs while dying of throat cancer—excerpts from the text (which Mark Twain called “a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece”) are placed throughout the iBook, read by Edoardo Ballerini. And there are views of the monuments built in his honor—kids play on the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, D.C., or pose for photographs at General Grant National Memorial in New York City, famously the former Grant’s Tomb.
Traub was inspired to take up the search for Grant after finding no clear picture of him in the history he left behind. “His story, in many ways, is inexplicable. Despite the volumes that I have read about the man, I still do not understand the drive that made this hero. Thus, I embarked on a photographic journey to capture the essence of those places made great by Grant’s indomitable spirit,” says Traub in an introduction to the book. Called “a drunkard, a butcher and a frump” in “post-Civil War histories, largely at the hands of Southern historians and writers sympathetic to the Lost Cause,” Traub writes that “Ulysses S. Grant simply did not have the look, the flash, or the fortune to hold up to the early twentieth century’s needs for mythic figures and celebrity. Grant, the imperfect hero, knew the causes of the war, knew that slavery and Secession were abominable, knew that winning came only with hard war, the unflinching support of the public and a superior strength of arms.” Looking for Grant among battle sites and monuments, in the houses where he slept and in his picture printed on ties in a Civil War gift shop, Traub produces a complicated, shifting portrait. Writes Fred Ritchin in an essay in the book, “Rather than concretize his physiognomy so that he looks like so many other men of importance, here he is synthesized as if from scratch. It is an act of imagination that photography is rarely employed to attempt.”