Saturday, April 14, 2012

Grant and the Gamblers

Reading William S. McFeely's biography of Ulysses S. Grant I was amused by the future president's encounter with a group of riverboat gamblers in 1844.

He wrote to his future wife Julia:
My journey up the Red River was not so pleasant [...] The boat was quite small and considerably crouded with passengers, and they not of the most pleasant sort; a number of them being what are usually called Black Legs or Gamblers; and some of them with very cut throat appearances. There was some of them that I should very much dislike to meet unarmed, and in a retired place, their knowing I had a hundred dollars about me. Likely I judge harshly.
Likely, he didn't. In 1844, gamblers would have been a common sight on Western Riverboats. As Daniel Hundley asserted in his portrait of the "peripatetical blackleg" in 1860: "Any man who has travelled much on the Mississippi, or the Alabama, or the Red, or the Arkansas [...] can not failed to have noted the rich Southern Bully in this particular stage of his decline and fall."

Also fascinating, given the trajectory of some recent posts, was Grant's account of his pleasure reading at West Point. Is it too much of a stretch to think that some of Bulwer's Newgate Novel romance might have seeped into Grant's portrayal of the Red River gamblers?
There is a fine library connected with the Academy from which cadets can get books to read in their quarters. I devoted more time to these, than to books relating to the course of studies. Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of a trashy sort. I read all of Bulwer's then published, Cooper's, Marryat's, Scott's, Washington Irving's works, Lever's, and many others that I do not now remember.
And there we are - back to Scott, again.

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