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Days of Grace: A Memoir ()

Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

We live in a day and age when the President of the United States tells us what kind of underwear he sports and, through a string of unfortunate circumstances, we find out about even his genital abnormalities.  He famously attests to feeling our pain, tears up at the drop of a hat and bites his own lip almost as often as those of the women he accosts.  No emotion, real or faked, is allowed to go unmentioned.  No facet of his life is too private to remain hidden.  He seems to be incapable of embarassment, devoid of shame, almost proud of personal scandal.  Everything--good, bad & indifferent--is on display and no thought is given to how the public and his peers perceive him.  His life is about personal gratification and little else.

How different this is from the example of George Washington.  As Gordon Wood has written in an excellent essay in the Virginia Historical Review, to Washington reputation was of paramount importance.  Nothing mattered more to him than how he was perceived by his fellow men.  This obsession fostered in him a moral rectitude that has served to make him seem somehow less than human, as if he had become a statue before he was even dead.  But it also made him a world historical figure, a man of unquestioned greatness.  And if our modern sensibilities find something vainglorious in his vanity and we feel a certain lack of connection with him because of his seeming perfection, at least he has maintained an aura of mystery and a sterling reputation for two centuries and counting.

What's the point of all this?  Just that Arthur Ashe seems to me to have been the George Washington of modern sport, an accomplishment that was all the more notable at a time when his fellow atheletes were increasingly emulating Bill Clinton.  The title of this memoir is especially appropriate because throughout his entire career Ashe seemed to be imbued with a quality of personal grace.  He was always a class act, always reserved, always professional, politically active without being shrill--he simply seemed to be better balanced and more grounded than most of those he competed against.  In fact, the rap on him was that he was too self-contained and that he needed to be more outer directed in order to win tennis matches (see Orrin's review of John McPhee's Levels of the Game).  Whether being more emotionally labile is truly of benefit on the court seems open to debate, but at any rate, Ashe remained a somewhat enigmatic, enormously respected figure.

It therefore came as a genuine shock when he announced to the world that he had contracted AIDs.  Suddenly this most private of public men was inextricablty tied to a disease whose associations were overwhelming behavioral.  What had happened to bring Ashe into the glare of the sensational public spotlight and, in particular, how was it possible that he, of all people, came to be identified with a disease that carried with it such negative moral connotations?  This is the point where Ashe begins his moving memoir.

In answering these questions, he is forced to reveal himself in ways that he never had during his career.  The effect is by turns affecting and disquieting.  I understand why he felt the need to share so much with the public, if for no other reason than to protect his carefully carved reputation, but by the end of the book, when he closes with a long admonitory letter that he wrote to his daughter, I just felt that he had gone too far.  Ultimately, he has nearly done a disservice to himself by exposing so much.  His life story and his description of the way in which family, sport and God sustained and nourished him throughout that exemplary life is eminently worthwhile.  But I finished the book feeling almost like a voyuer and wishing that he'd held back a little more.  I preferred him when he was more Washington than Clinton.


Grade: (B)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "arthur ashe"
    -Tribute to Arthur Ashe (CMG Worldwide)
    -CNN/SI: Arthur Ashe Articles: Ashe, Arthur Robert, Jr.
    -USTA -- Arthur Ashe Fact Sheet
    -REVIEW: DAYS OF GRACE A Memoir By Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (Margo Jefferson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: DAYS OF GRACE A Memoir By Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: A HARD ROAD TO GLORY A History of the African-American Athlete. Volume One: 1619-1918  (David Halberstam, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Ashe Legacy: Strong Talk From Heart  (GEORGE VECSEY, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE COURTS OF BABYLON Tales of Greed and Glory in a Harsh New World of Professional Tennis. By Peter Bodo (Stephen G. Smith, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Smaller the Ball, the Better the Book: A Game Theory of Literature  (George Plimpton, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Day of the Race Men (Tamar Jacoby, Commentary Magazine)
    -REVIEW: Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad (Donald Kagan, Commentary)