‘To Be, To Do, or To Suffer’

So I tried out a presidential quote on my Facebook friends to see if they could guess who said it. The person in question described himself at one stage in his life as “a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy.” I was a little surprised how quickly–immediately–someone came back with the correct answer: Lincoln.

So I brainstormed another favorite presidential quote: “The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.” That’s another well-known one: U.S. Grant near the end of his struggle with throat cancer.

On one hand, I’ve always thought Grant was saying that illness and suffering were sublimating his presence as a person into something else: a verb, an action, an energized presence. And I think it’s natural to focus on the last part of the formulation: “to suffer.” By all accounts he was in a lot of pain as his cancer progressed. But there’s something else there that perhaps shouldn’t be surprising for someone who was as careful a writer as Grant was. In part, he’s quoting what may have been a childhood grammar lesson.

Here’s a passage from an 1831 volume by John March Putnam, “English Grammar: with an improved syntax.” It’s a pretty standard late 18th-early 19th century description of verbs and their function.

I think Grant’s sublimation is still there. But his “suffering” has another dimension to it–simultaneously, he exists still, he continues to act, and he is at the mercy of the forces ending his life.

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