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July 2006
Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War
by Charles Bracelen Flood

The Way It Went, for Me
by Charles Bracelen Flood

Even in my childhood, there was always a torrent of words going through my head. I loved to read, but had no aspirations to become a writer.

In high school, I was the news editor of our paper and the literary editor of our yearbook, but I thought of the contents of magazines and books as being written by “other people” and never considered myself as a person who might become one of them.

This mindset continued as I entered Harvard. As a freshman, I entered the competition for the Literary Board of the Harvard Lampoon and was elected on the basis of a few stories I submitted, but I saw my writing as something of a parlor trick that in this case had landed me in an enjoyable combination of humor magazine and social club. Certainly the company was stimulating: George Plimpton was the president when I came on the staff, and during my time I knew John Updike and Sadri Khan (Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the Aga Khan’s son). In my senior year I was elected Ibis, a position roughly equivalent to vice president, the president being the future actor Fred Gwynne.

Paralleling this extracurricular activity, I was majoring in English and taking as many creative writing courses as I could, still viewing all this as a pleasurable activity that would play no significant role in my post-college life. In my senior year, all this changed, both in perception and reality. Still in the spirit of pour le sport, I applied for and was accepted into Archibald MacLeish’s famous English S, a writing seminar in which the eminent poet and playwright and former Librarian of Congress worked for the year with 12 students who, like me, had been coming up through the lower-level writing courses. The prerequisite for acceptance was to be engaged in writing something longer than my previous short pieces; to get into the course, I began a novel. At the same time, thinking that I’d better get ready for the real world after graduation, I applied to the Harvard Law School.

The startling denouement occurred about six weeks before I graduated. I was admitted to the Harvard Law School and sent back the paperwork saying I would come. At the same time, I had at MacLeish’s suggestion submitted 70 pages of text and a 20-page outline of my novel to Houghton Mifflin, the Boston-based publishers. The phone in my dormitory room rang: The man calling was Paul Brooks, Houghton Mifflin’s editor-in-chief, and I soon found myself signing a contract with them. I received some money, and would receive more if they liked it on completion and decided to go ahead and print it.

I think the idea that a nationally prominent publishing house wanted to publish his or her little novel would have stunned any 21-year-old senior, and it was so far from my view of what probably lay ahead for me that I mistrusted the whole thing. I did indeed continue working on my novel, but that autumn I entered Harvard Law School, still of the view that writing was a house of cards, very likely to collapse on me.

Things became both complicated and simple. After two weeks of classes, I realized that the law was not for me; but I’ve never been much for quitting, so I decided to stick out the year. A singular experience ensued. On the one hand, the first year of the Harvard Law School can be rough even when you want to be a lawyer, but it is close to mental torture if you don’t. On the other hand, I worked out an interesting schedule: I went to every class, took good notes, and spent the afternoon studying the law. In the evening, I worked on my novel until I became sleepy and promptly went to bed. The result was that at the end of the year I passed, standing midway in the class, and had written most of my novel. (I concluded from this that most first-year law students overstudy, don’t sleep enough, and worry too much about how they’re doing. Trust me.)

The Korean War was on, and after a couple of summer months spent finishing and polishing my novel, I handed it in to Houghton Mifflin and joined the Army. After a short time in the service, I emerged to become the central figure in an interesting publishing story. In October 1953, Houghton Mifflin brought out my novel, Love Is a Bridge, to which they had given their Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award. It received strong, and in many cases rave, reviews from coast to coast, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks.

So there I was, a still-immature young man bemused by what had happened to his little parlor trick of writing, and the world was running up to me with a mirror and saying, “Look! You’re a novelist! That’s what you are.”

And so I thought, well, yes, and over the next years wrote a second novel that lacked a lot of what had made the first a success, and a third during which I realized that the noise I was hearing was me, scratching the bottom of my barrel. Because the fame of my first book guaranteed my continued publication and kept me wrapped in an aura of considerable attention, I experienced the pernicious effect of early success. Outwardly I think I presented an attractive and suitably modest demeanor, but underneath there was a bewildered and sometimes wretchedly unhappy kid.

There were, however, some experiences that would not have occurred had I stayed in law school and become a lawyer in my native Manhattan. I did some “stringer” assignments for the Associated Press that began with covering the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games and eventually led to doing three more Olympics, as well as opening the door to future assignments that included going to Vietnam, first for the AP when it was still the “Green Berets” war, and then for a freelance year that produced my first-person account The War of the Innocents. I made the most of the chance to travel and live in different places that exists for a bachelor writer who is able to make at least some money: While I continued to write books that moved me from historical fiction to history itself, I traveled through Africa, climbing Kilimanjaro, and, after two years in San Francisco, spent two years teaching at Sophia University in Tokyo. Along the way I met interesting people of all kinds, including Ernest Hemingway, who was most gracious to me during some pleasant encounters at the Ritz Bar in Paris in the summer of 1956.

And I became a professional. It wasn’t a parlor trick anymore, or a fun hobby. I had always loved the English language, and some steel I had not known was in me began to enter my soul. I wanted to do justice to the language and to my experiences, and I began to work harder and think harder. And I tried to do at least something for my fellow writers, both those in this country and those abroad, some of the latter having been imprisoned on the basis of what they wrote. I became the president of PEN American Center (on one occasion this involved having dinner in New York with Arthur Miller; on another I spent several days with the German Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll in then-Yugoslavia; and on yet another I ended up sitting with the great Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata at a PEN Congress in Korea), and I served on the boards of the Authors League and the Authors Guild.

There is a school of thought that there is no such thing as luck: You’re simply prepared for the opportunities that come your way, and when they do and you make the most of them, it just looks like luck. I disagree. There’s the luck of what doesn’t happen to you, and the luck of what does. I was very nearly killed or wounded a number of times in Vietnam. In a different aspect of life, at the age of 40 this bachelor walked into a dinner party in his native Manhattan and met a 24-year-old woman from Kentucky who was working in the city. If anyone had told me five minutes before I met Kathy Burnam that I would spent the rest of my life living in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky—a state to which I’d never been—I would have expressed disbelief. But here I am, 35 years later, living on our farm in Kentucky and far happier than I probably deserve to be. Kathy brought so much with her—loveliness, charm and warmth, great intelligence, a feeling for civic duty, a super sense of humor, the common sense I often lack—and we are the parents of three children now in their mid-to-late 20s who are making their own contributions to the world.

And I keep writing—11 books thus far, the latest being Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War [published in fall 2005]. And I’m making notes for my 12th. So it turned out not to be a parlor trick or a hobby or something that “other people” did, but I’m glad it came about as it did for me. I wasn’t cut out to be one of those intense undergraduates who stay up all night talking about Proust and Joyce and Mann. I wasn’t supposed to be one of the literati, although I’ve known my share of them. I was anything but an arrow that flew straight to its mark. I was destined to have my share of failures, frustrations, the certain knowledge that what I saw on the page fell far beneath my hopes of what I could put there, but there have been hours when I knew I was doing it right, really right, and those go a long way. As for forms of recognition that have pleased me, in 2001 the Lampoon made me the guest of honor at its Clem Wood Award dinner, a distinction given to only a few of its alumni, including Undersecretary of State Elliot Richardson, John Updike, George Plimpton, William Gass, Sadri Khan, and Conan O’Brien.

Am I grateful for what turned out to be not a hobby but a career? Yes. A recent questionnaire asked me to answer this: “What would you like your epitaph to be?” I replied that Harry Truman once saw a simple wood marker on a cowboy’s grave that said: “Here lies Joe Smith. He done his damnedest.” Bearing in mind that one person’s damnedest may not be as good as another’s, I like to think I’ve done that.

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