Friday, September 29, 2017

If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings & Drawings

“I was wrassling some general. Some general with a beard.” James Thurber’s drawing for “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”      
© 1935 James Thurber. Image reproduced by arrangement with Rosemary A. Thurber c/o The Barbara Hogenson Agency.
At the end of 1930 Scribner’s Magazine began publishing what would prove to be a short-lived series of “alternative history” pieces. The first installment, in the November issue, was “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln.” This was followed by a contribution from none other than Winston Churchill, who turned the concept on its head. It was bafflingly titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”—but, as we all know, Lee didn’t win the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, Churchill’s essay purported to be written by a historian in a world in which Lee had won not only the battle but also the entire war. This fictional historian, in turn, speculates what might have happened if Lee had not won the battle. This type of dizzying zaniness brought out the parodist in Thurber, who published “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” in The New Yorker in December. The next month Scribner’s published a third essay (“If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”) before bring the series to an end. All three pieces were soon forgotten, but Thurber’s parody became one of his most famous and beloved works.

Three decades later “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” enjoyed a second life when it was included in the hit revue A Thurber Carnival. Virtually every review proclaimed it as one of the show’s highlights. During an interview, a reporter admitted to Thurber that “the Grant skit” was one of her favorite parts of the show. Thurber responded, “A woman said to me, ‘I don’t like the bastardization of history,’ That woman didn’t know the point of the thing and she didn’t know history. And I don’t like my humor to be called mild and gentle.”

A Thurber Carnival opened on Broadway in early 1960 and received excellent reviews, but it closed after seventeen weeks because of a citywide actor’s strike. When the show reopened for three months in the fall, Thurber agreed to play himself in the quasi-revival. His old college friend Elliott Nugent, a stage and screen actor who collaborated with Thurber on the 1940 Broadway comedy The Male Animal, remarked, “That S.O.B. has been trying to get on the stage for forty years, to my certain knowledge.” Yet Thurber was a self-described perfectionist and had a reputation for stubbornness, and the crew and actors were understandably nervous about including the untested writer in such a prominent role.

They need not have worried; his stage debut was an extraordinary success, and he ended up appearing in eighty-eight performances. “He received crashing applause upon entering, exiting, and at curtain call,” writes biographer Harrison Kinney. “He rarely flubbed a line.” Even when he made a mistake, he recovered quickly and his ornery ad-libs often earned even more laughter. Once, in a scene that depicted him dictating to his “secretary,” he gave his address as “Westport, Connecticut” rather than West Cornwall and promptly sneered, “These publishers have me so mixed up I don’t even know where I live.”

A Thurber Carnival has been revived numerous times in the last half century—and it is still a staple among regional theaters. And now “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” has been given yet another theatrical life in an altogether different form. Over the next few months the actor Bill Murray, with cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang, and pianist Vanessa Perez, are on the North American tour of their New Worlds show, which blends classical music, American standards, and literary readings—including Murray’s innovative rendering of Thurber’s classic story.

Note: “An army surrenders on its stomach” is Thurber’s distortion of the saying “An army marches on its stomach,” which has been attributed to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great. There is no evidence for either attribution; the quote first appeared in English in the early 1900s.

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The morning of the ninth of April, 1865, dawned beautifully. General Meade was up with the first streaks of crimson in the sky. General Hooker and General Burnside were up, and had breakfasted, by a quarter after eight. The day continued beautiful. It drew on toward eleven o'clock. General Ulysses S. Grant was still not up. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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