The photo by Joe Alper shows Bob Dylan, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo and Lena Spencer in January 1962. I noticed it last night on a wall at Caffe Lena (founded by and named after Spencer) in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Dylan performed that month and the previous June.
I was at Caffe Lena for a staged reading of a new play, Grant's Ghost by Warren Schultz, whom I'd never met before. Our mutual friend Larry Levine was one of the actors. The play is about the death of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885 on Mount McGregor, a few miles north of Saratoga Springs. I liked it and said so, with particular praise for the "ghost" character, Grant's father Jesse -- though I inevitably had a few nits to pick.
Oddly, in the late 1990s I also started writing a play about more or less the same things, which almost 20 years later I turned into a novel, The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant. The rather more celebrated playwright John Guare wrote about the same general subject in 2002 in A Few Stout Individuals. His play is set in New York City before Grant's final days, while my novel takes place both there and on Mount McGregor.
My other two Civil War era books are biographies, of James Montgomery and Gordon Granger, and I know some history buffs and students of warfare who are suspicious of historical fiction. But an imaginative sympathy is required for both kinds of writing.
Consider the great Russians (whom I am obviously not measuring myself against). Of course there is War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, but I'm thinking of another novel which I'd barely heard of until my cousin Steve Pinto gave me a copy about a year ago: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It's the best book I've ever read about World War II, taking in the Nazi Holocaust and Soviet forced labor camps, and told through gripping, tragic, empathetic, fictional stories that resound with truth.
Six decades and a Nobel Prize on, Dylan remains a profoundly creative artist. And Grant, born 200 years ago today, who wrote one great book at the end of his life, is still an inspiration.
My first speaking gig for the new Montgomery book is 7 p.m. this Thursday (tomorrow) at the Ulster County Civil War Round Table in Kingston, NY.