The peculiarly named Grant Gore, a small triangular park at the intersection of Dean and Bedford in Crown Heights (‘gore’ being an obscure term for any small triangular park), is home to a truly massive bronze statue of Ulysses S Grant, Union hero of the Civil War and two term Reconstruction era president.
On a crisp morning this week I went to take a look at the statue. I was intrigued by the short bit of history I had read about it and the Gilded Age high society club that had commissioned it, but I also went because I wanted to unpack the inexplicable warmth I feel towards Grant. When I consider Grant I feel an enormous sense of respect, but even moreso, empathy for his humanity, compassion for the weight he must have felt. I have no real idea about the provenance of these feelings, I have no general respect for battlefield heroes, didn’t read historical romances of the civil war in my youth. His beard, however, is incredible, and his name equally so, a folding point in human history between two “great men and successful leaders of war”. Ulysses had been my favorite Greek hero growing up, I was taken by both his cunning and his deep desire just to get home, when I was young I had a precocious world-weariness and would frequently ask adults - usually my parents and usually in our own home - if I could go home, go somewhere safe and my own.
Turning the corner from Dean onto Bedford, there is the statue, made by some high society men to celebrate themselves, but also to celebrate Grant and the success of the Union and the booming Union economy that had made them so wealthy, to celebrate their own philanthropy and to mark the spot where they drank and smoked and relaxed, their clubhouse (now a senior center) being right across the street. But how to celebrate Grant when, at that point, in 1896, Grant’s legacy had been tarnished by his presidential scandals, by his heavy drinking. It was impossible in this lighting to get a picture showing the features of this statue’s face, but Grant looks tired. He looks weary. Weighed down by responsibility. He’s in his army fatigues but his hat is pulled down low and he’s looking straight ahead, not with valiance or triumph but measured exhaustion, impossible to tell what is on his mind. The artist, William Ordway Partridge, made him look like he had endured, but kept moving forward, made him look like he had carried a terrible burden but persevered, sympathetic, human, someone who could be forgiven for anything because of how much he had already borne. So maybe it’s that vision of Grant, passed down in the wealthy Yankee cultural consciousness that became the American cultural consciousness, that creates these feelings in me, the look in his eyes on the $50 bill or the images of him in my grade school textbooks. Sad. Solid.
Recently the statue came up in local political debate as a adjucation point in the discussion of the recent city bill calling for the removal of public statues celebrating hate symbols in the context of the national discussion of the removal of confederate monuments. The question of Grant-as-hate-symbol arises as he had passed an order calling for the expulsion of all Jewish traders from several Southern states as a means to bust illegal cotton trading. Does this act of anti-semitism of anti-semitism mean that the statue should be removed? Judging from the public discourse many people who seemed to be asking this question were asking in bad faith, as a way to discredit the law and to preserve statues of Columbus and other figures of hate and pain. But I actually think it’s a reasonable question, not as a hand wringing “where do we draw the line?” but as an earnest “where do we draw the line and who draws it?”.