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by William H. Benson

July 20, 2000


     Harry Potter made the cover of Newsweek this week with the release on July 8th of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in the seven-book series.  J. K. Rowling, a single mother who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, wrote much of the first Harry Potter book at a table in a neighborhood coffee shop while her daughter slept in the stroller.

     In her books Rowling creates a fantasy world;  Harry Potter is a teen-age boy, but he is also a Wizard and is invited to attend a school for Wizards called Hogwarts.  As an infant he was struck in the face and now sports, along with black-framed glasses, an ugly lightning-like gash down the center of his forhead.  His birthday is July 31st (the same day as Rowling’s), but there is also a Deathday Party, celebrated by a ghost on the anniversary of its death.  Rowling’s fantasy world includes its own vocabulary, its own code of behavior, and its own cast of characters.

     It seems the British write the best fantasy; J. K. Rowling fits into the category of fantasy writer along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  Tokien’s Hobbit world and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia still, after a couple of generations, captivate both the juvenile and the non-juvenile reader.

     Writing is solitary work.  It is selfish work.  It requires a ruthless demand for time alone.  A good writer pushes all else aside, including family and friends, for some time every day to write.  Few can do it.  Thousands of books are started every year, but only a small fraction are ever finished.  Rowling admitted that she was very happy when she finished the first Harry Potter book, because she had written two previous books and had failed to finish them.

     Recently, I read a biography on Ulysses S. Grant.  He was the great Civil War General, who displayed a remarkable determination and drive to win at all costs..  His classic line was that he intended “to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”  Prior to the Civil War he failed as a farmer, a clerk, and a peddler, and after the Civil War he was elected President and proved to be an inept bungler, imperceptive to the graft and corruption that permeated his White House.

     But the amazing part of his biography was what happened just prior to his death.  In 1884 he found himself penniless and was then diagnosed with lung cancer.  To support himself and his wife, Julia, that last year he began to write magazine articles of his Civil War experiences twenty plus years before.  Mark Twain read the articles and promised Grant that if he finished an entire work of his Personal Memoirs he would see that they were published.  Grant had never written anything before, but he took up the task with his usual characteristic stubborness.

     He wrote in longhand for a full year and pushed everything else aside, including his own burial.  He completed the two volumes, and less than two weeks later on July 23, 1885, he died.  True to his word, Mark Twain published Grant’s Personal Memoirs, and promptly paid Julia Grant $450,000, a huge sum for then.  The Memoirs fall into the same category as does Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, the best in a personal narrative of military exploits.

J. K. Rowling and U. S. Grant. One is British, and the other American.  One writes fantasy, and the other history.  One earns millions and much acclaim, the other dies never realizing what he had achieved.  The differences are so apparant.  But what they had in common was that selfish, almost ruthless, brand of determination to see the work finished.  One waited anxiously for her daughter to sleep in the stroller at a coffee shop so she could write, and the other virtually postponed his own burial until he had written “The End”.

     Grant said it best: “To fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”