McFeely, William S. 1930- (William Shield McFeely)

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McFeely, William S. 1930- (William Shield McFeely)


Born September 25, 1930, in New York, NY; son of William C. and Marguerite McFeely; married Mary Drake (a librarian, author, and photographer), September 13, 1952; children: William Drake, Eliza, Jennifer. Education: Amherst College, B.A., 1952; Yale University, M.A., 1962, Ph.D., 1966.


Home—Wellfleet, MA.


First National City Bank, New York, NY, assistant cashier, 1952-61; Yale University, New Haven, CT, assistant professor, 1966-69, associate professor of history, 1969-70; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, professor of history, 1970-80, Rodman Professor of History, 1980-82, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, 1982-86, dean of faculty, 1970-73; University of Georgia, Athens, GA, Richard B. Russell Professor of American History, 1986-94, Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities, 1994-97, professor emeritus, 1997—. Visiting professor of history, University College, London, 1978-79, and Amherst College, 1980-81; University of Massachusetts, visiting professor, 1984-85, and John J. McCloy Professor, 1988-89; Yale University, Cardozo visiting professor of history, 2001-02. Associate fellow, Charles Warren Center, 1991-92; W.E.B. DuBois Institute, Harvard University, visiting scholar, 1992—; fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, 2006-07. Affiliated with Huntington Library, 1976, 1983. Teacher, Yale/Harvard/Columbia intensive summer studies program, 1967-69. Consultant to U.S. House of Representatives committee on the judiciary, 1974.


PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Southern Historical Association, Century Association.


Morse fellow, 1968-69; American Council of Learned Societies fellow, 1974-75; Pulitzer Prize in biography, 1982, for Grant: A Biography; L.H.D., Amherst College, 1982; Francis Parkman Prize, 1982; Guggenheim fellow, 1982-83; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1986-87; Lincoln Prize, 1992; Avery O. Craven Award, 1992.


Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1968, Norton (New York, NY) 1994.

(With Thomas J. Ladenburg) The Black Man in the Land of Equality, Hayden (New York City), 1969.

Grant: A Biography, Norton (New York, NY), 1981.

(Editor with wife, Mary Drake McFeely) Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters, 1839-1865, Library of America (New York, NY), 1990.

Frederick Douglass, Norton (New York, NY), 1991.

Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into Freedom, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.

(Editor, with William L. Andrews) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.

Proximity to Death, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.

Ulysses S. Grant: An Album; Warrior, Husband, Traveler, "Emancipator," Writer, photographic research by Neil Giordano, W.W. Norton & Company (New York, NY), 2003.

Portrait: A Life of Thomas Eakins, W.W. Norton & Company (New York, NY), 2006.

Also author, with Mary Drake McFeely, of introduction for Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 1982, and Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Norwood (Norwood, PA), 1984. Contributor to books, including The Black Experience in America, edited by J.C. Curtis and C.C. Gould, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1970; Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience, edited by N.I. Huggins and M. Kilson, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1971; and Region, Race and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, edited by J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press, 1982.


William S. McFeely captured the ironic life of General Ulysses S. Grant, whose remarkable leadership won the Civil War for the Union yet who was beset by personal and professional failure during his civilian career, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Grant: A Biography. As noted by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his New York Times review of Grant, McFeely describes Grant's "unpromising" childhood and "mediocre" scholastic record at West Point, as well as his uneventful early career as peacetime army officer, farmer, bill collector, and clerk. Lehmann-Haupt stated that McFeely records "the sudden change that the outbreak of the Civil War effected in him; his astonishing rise from adviser to a Galena [Illinois] unit of volunteers to commanding general of the Union forces; his gloriously empty and corruption-ridden two-term Presidency; his late disastrous attempts to succeed as a businessman, and the final race against death to produce what turned out to be his great and best-selling military memoirs—all of this amounts to an archetypal saga of American failure and success."

In analyzing the reasons why such a brilliant general would meet with almost overwhelming defeat as America's Reconstruction-era president, McFeely fills his study with "revealing pointers and subtle theorizing," according to Marcus Cunliffe in the New York Times Book Review. "The main themes of his book are that Grant, though never a crusader for good causes, once had a fellow feeling for the ordinary citizen but gradually lost it as fame led him to depend upon the applause of the people en masse."

To Newsweek critic Peter S. Prescott, "McFeely's entirely plausible conclusion is that Grant, the former failure, was exceedingly disillusioned about his subordinates, as much in war as in peace. He expected little from them, but in war he could give an order and see it obeyed; coping with the members of his Cabinet was another matter." While the post-Civil War life of Ulysses S. Grant could never compare with his success in the military, Grant's last project—his wartime Memoirs, written while the ex-president was battling throat cancer—is acknowledged by critics to be the finest book ever written by a chief of state, demonstrating that for all his faults Grant was an extraordinary military strategist.

"McFeely's biography is the first full-scale treatment of all aspects of Grant's life," according to Prescott, "the first to attempt a reconciliation of the warrior and the statesman, to explain the psychology that produced such astonishing success and failure. The portrait that emerges—sympathetic yet firm about its subject's shortcomings—seems to me entirely successful." The author sees in his subject "a man of his time, beset by the terrible fear of failure and hardship that swallowed so many around him, especially those who, like him, did not do well at the all-absorbing game of getting," stated Washington Post Book World reviewer Bernard S. Weisberger. Grant "sought a presidency for which he was unqualified because ‘he could not risk giving up an inch for fear that he might fall all the way back.’"

More recently, McFeely complemented his Grant biography with Ulysses S. Grant: An Album; Warrior, Husband, Traveler, "Emancipator," Writer, which provides a hundred photographs and illustrations highlighting various chapters of Grant's life, accompanied by the author's commentary. Not intended as a thorough biography, the work instead offers "critical insights into Grant's life," according to Edward Metz in Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly writer complained that there is a lack of captions for the photographs, thus making it sometimes hard to identify them. The reviewer added, though, that "the essay on the photographs of Grant is concise and cogent."

McFeely's next biography deals with the life of ex-slave Frederick Douglass, renowned orator and freedom fighter. Frederick Douglass focuses on Douglass's early life, which he spent on a Maryland plantation with his maternal grandmother, and follows him to his death in 1895. McFeely covers material the abolitionist himself treated in his own three autobiographies, yet he has assimilated research—some previously undiscovered—from an abundant variety of sources. Louis S. Gerteis commented in the Journal of American History that the author "brings to the familiar Frederick Douglass story an engaging sensitivity to the complex interactions of middle-class Victorian sexuality, the evolving American culture of race, and the class distinctions of the early industrial era." Gerteis added that McFeely's book provides "a richness of resources never before assembled." Ishmael Reed observed in the Los Angeles Times: "This engaging and well-written work of literature suggests that the Age of Douglass was this nation's greatest epoch."

Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into Freedom offers insights into African American history through the perspective of contemporary descendants of slaves. An island off the Georgia coast, Sapelo is home today to a small population of blacks whose ancestors were abducted from Africa and the West Indies and who served owners on plantations and in cotton fields. While the Civil War ended the stronghold of property owners on the island, General William Sherman's Special Field Order 15, later supported by Congress, allowed for the habitation of the Sea Islands for newly freed black slaves, beginning in 1865. "Using the stories the Sapelo people told him, the advice of a professional genealogist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the tools of the historian's trade, McFeely delineates a spare trail from slaves like Bilali—the great-great-great-grandfather of one of his sources on Sapelo—to the poor and decent lives led by the few remaining inhabitants," commented Roger Wilkins in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Malcolm Jones, Jr., noted in Newsweek that McFeely "interweaves accounts of slavery and Reconstruction's treacheries with the testimony of the fishermen and basket-making artisans who currently abide on Sapelo." Wilkins concluded that he is "deeply grateful for McFeely's magnificent effort of thought, empathy, scholarship, and imagination."

McFeely's eminence as a historian on the Civil War and Reconstruction led him to become involved in the arguments over capital punishment, a subject he treats in Proximity to Death. Atlanta lawyer Stephen Bright, seeking to make the point that pervasive racism could deny a black defendant a fair trial, had called McFeely to testify about the significance of the Confederate battle flag, which is incorporated into Georgia's state flag and is a popular icon in many other southern states. McFeely's experience in this trial made him a crusader against the death penalty. He came to see the people defended by Bright and his colleagues from the Southern Center for Human Rights as "men capable of redemption, having lived beyond their incomprehensible crimes to help others, to feel remorse, to absorb the humanizing effects of education," explained Laura Masnerus in the New York Times Book Review. Masnerus thinks McFeely deals with capital punishment "as something of a naif, forgoing the historian's careful examination of context to tell a story as a foreign traveler might." He feels it is impossible to administer the death penalty fairly, so he does not delve into the arguments about this. But, Masnerus contended, "for those stuck with working to make it possible, like the Supreme Court justices who cannot in all intellectual honesty find capital punishment unconstitutional, those larger arguments are important indeed." She also found McFeely's portrayals of Bright and his cohorts too "reverential," a complaint also voiced by a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who asserted: "McFeely too clearly sees [Bright] as a knight in shining armor." Still, the Publishers Weekly critic described Proximity to Death as "a humane plea for compassion," while Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor deemed it "an earnest, ruminative protest."

With Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins McFeely tackles a new subject for a biography. Eakins, a nineteenth-century American painter, has been the subject of renewed interest in the art world in recent years, thus making the biography timely. McFeely wrote it as a reaction to the 2005 work Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist by Henry Adams, who saw the artist as a "dark and possibly dangerous man," according to Kevin Nance in Booklist. While the artist's obsession with anatomy, photography, and the male—often nude—figure was controversial in Eakins's day, McFeely portrays the artist sympathetically as a troubled man struggling with his sexual identity. Nance was unconvinced by McFeely's view that the artist's paintings of male nudes had more to do with an expressed desire for freedom than a homosexual preoccupation; still, the critic considered McFeely's interpretations of Eakins's works "insightful and fresh." Holding a similar view, a Publishers Weekly critic was impressed by the analyses of the painter's "portraits, where the sitters' faces exude a sadness that reflects the artist's own emotional state." "McFeely is a most credible narrator," concluded Brenda Wineapple in American Scholar, "inviting us to believe—and, better yet, to observe—that whatever his disappointment, whether with the broken promise of romantic freedom or something far more elusive, Eakins transformed it into an art of tragic grandeur."



African American Review, fall, 1994, John Sekora, review of Frederick Douglass, pp. 473-479.

American Scholar, January 1, 2007, Brenda Wineapple, "Pleasure out of Desperation: Thomas Eakins, Yearning for the Ideal in a Materialistic Age," review of Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins, p. 137.

Booklist, October 1, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of Proximity to Death, p. 312; October 15, 2003, Jay Freeman, review of Ulysses S. Grant: An Album; Warrior, Husband, Traveler, "Emancipator," Writer, p. 385; November 1, 2006, Kevin Nance, review of Portrait, p. 27.

Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, March 1, 2007, Martha E. Stone, "The Keeper of Eakins' Flame," review of Portrait, p. 38.

Journal of American History, March, 1992, Louis S. Gerteis, review of Frederick Douglass, pp. 1448-1449.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2006, review of Portrait, p. 826.

Library Journal, October 15, 2003, Edward Metz, review of Ulysses S. Grant: An Album, p. 76.

Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1991, Ishmael Reed, review of Frederick Douglass.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 24, 1994, Roger Wilkins, review of Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into Freedom, pp. 1, 11.

New Republic, February 18, 1991, Alfred Kazin, review of Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters, 1839-1865, pp. 61-65.

Newsweek, April 13, 1981, Peter S. Prescott, review of Grant: A Biography; July 18, 1994, Malcolm Jones, Jr., review of Sapelo's People, p. 61.

New York Times, May 18, 1981, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Grant.

New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1981, Marcus Cunliffe, review of Grant; November 21, 1999, Laura Masnerus, review of Proximity to Death, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly, October 18, 1999, review of Proximity to Death, p. 59; August 18, 2003, review of Ulysses S. Grant: An Album, p. 73; September 4, 2006, review of Portrait, p. 49.

Smithsonian, December, 1994, Donald Dale Jackson, review of Sapelo's People, p. 151.

Time, May 4, 1981, review of Grant.

Washington Post Book World, February 22, 1981, Bernard S. Weisberger, review of Grant.

Yale Review, July, 1992, review of Frederick Douglass, pp. 186-197.