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Unlikely Friends: Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant

Last Photograph of U. S. Grant

The Last Photograph of U. S. Grant via Library of Congress [Public Domain]

On Monday, July 20, 1885, after 11 months, two volumes, 1,231 pages and 291,000 words, “he put aside his pencil and said there was nothing more to do,” Mark Twain remembered. Twain was referring to Ulysses S. Grant’s heroic task of finishing his memoirs before succumbing to throat cancer.

History teachers know Grant as the general who saved the Union during the Civil War and as the 18th President of the United States. Teachers of Literature know Mark Twain as the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other great works.  What many may not know is that the two men were friends, and Twain was the publisher of Grant’s memoirs. Both Huck Finn and The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant were published in 1885, and neither book has gone out of print since that time.

A little background: After leaving the presidency in 1877, Grant made a series of financial miscues. It seems he was a much better general than financier. He became a partner in and invested a substantial sum in a Wall Street firm called Grant and Ward. The firm collapsed, leaving Grant and his wife Julia with $130 Julia had stored in a cookie jar and Grant with only $80 in his pocket. Desperate for funds, Ulysses agreed to write his memoirs to be published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Century offered Grant only a 10% royalty for the book, a sum much smaller than even a novice author would have received.  Mark Twain, knowing that his friend was being cheated, contacted Grant and asked him to not sign a contract with Century. Twain convinced Grant to sign with Twain’s own publishing outfit, Charles L. Webster & Co. Twain offered Grant 75% of the sales and a small advance which enabled Grant to write without worrying about money.

Mark Twain Research Topic

Mark Twain Research Topic via ProQuest’s eLibrary

Shortly after beginning the book, however, Grant was diagnosed with advanced, terminal throat cancer. Grant knew he was in a race against time to finish his project, hoping that it might sell enough to provide for Julia and his family after he was gone. Doctors moved Grant and his family to a resort on Mount McGregor in the Adirondacks, hoping the fresh air would prolong his life. He suffered terribly during the writing of his memoirs. Working against the clock, he sometimes hammered out 25 to 50 pages per day. As his condition worsened, he wrote propped up in his chair by pillows, too weak to walk or even talk above a whisper.  “I am sure I will never leave Mt. McGregor alive,” he confided to Julia. “I pray God however that I may be spared to complete the necessary work upon my book.”

Grant Writing His Memoirs at Mt. McGregor 1885

Grant Writing His Memoirs at Mt. McGregor, 1885 Library of Congress [Public Domain]

 

Grant finished the book on July 20, 1885, and he died just 3 days later. Twain himself worked furiously during that Summer and Fall following Grant’s death to get the two-volume autobiography/memoir published.

 

Grant could not have known that his memoirs would sell enough for Twain to give some $450,000 to Julia (over $10 million today), making her one of the wealthiest women in the country.

 

Today, Grant’s autobiography is still considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest military memoirs ever written.  According to his friend Mark Twain, “General Grant’s book is a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece.”

History and literature teachers should let their students spend some time searching eLibrary for more information on these two great figures from America’s past.

If you do not have a subscription to ProQuest products, you can request a free trial here.

EXTRA:

*Grant dedicated his memoirs to “the American soldier and sailor” – both Northern and Southern. “As it is, the dedication is to those we fought against as well as those we fought with. It may serve a purpose in restoring harmony.”

*A quote from General William Tecumseh Sherman: “Other books of the war will be forgotten, mislaid, dismissed. Millions will read Grant’s Memoirs and remember them.”

*Among the last words in Grant’s memoirs were the words that would eventually be engraved on his tomb: “Let us have peace.”

*Twain visited Grant on several occasions in the months prior to his death. After one such visit, Twain noted: “One marked feature of General Grant’s character is his exceeding gentleness, goodness, sweetness. Every time I have been in his presence–lately and formerly–my mind was drawn to that feature. I wonder it has not been more spoken of.”

Tom Mason

Tom Mason

editor, eLibrary at ProQuest
Tom Mason

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