“One day he put aside his pencil and said there was nothing more to do.” That is how Mark Twain described Ulysses S. Grant finishing, three days before his agonizing death from throat cancer, the autobiography he had spent the last year of his life writing. Grant had done it for the money; a swindle had left him destitute. Twain, a friend and admirer, offered generous terms to publish it. But when, on July 20, 1885, Grant placed his pencil atop a bureau in the room in which he worked and slept, what he put to bed as it were, was a two-volume 1,215 page masterpiece. And when it sprang up, five months later, in the form of 610,000 single volumes costing an average of $4 each, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant made his widow a very, very rich woman. How America’s greatest 19th author. and America’s greatest 19th century general, came together to produce a book which has never gone out of print, is told here…
Three quarters of a million men died in the war that made him famous, but when all was over, it was the cigars that killed him. He smoked 20 a day for 20 years and that, and a peach, brought him down. When, on June 2, 1884 Ulysses S. Grant bit into a peach, he felt a sudden sharp pain – as if a shard from its pit had lodged in his throat. Rinsing with water made it even worse – it felt, he said, like swallowing molten lead. But it wasn’t just his throat that was on fire. A month earlier, his reputation went up in flames when a New York swindler to whom he had lent his illustrious name, made off with $16 million dollars – of which $750,000, was Grant’s. On May 6th, then, the ex-Lieutenant General and General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States; ex-4 star General of the Army of the United States; and ex-two time President of the United States, had exactly $80 in his pocket and the $130 his wife pulled from a cookie jar. That summer, he went to work – writing, writing, writing, his wife recalled, for their bread. His friend Mark Twain, advising him on contracts, convinced him finally to sign one with him, on February 27, 1885. And so Grant, making the bravest fight of his life – against cancer, destitution, pain – wrote every day until, literally speechless, he finished on July 20th. Three days later, he died. When, in December, the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant came out, it was hailed a masterpiece. And two months after that, Mark Twain handed Grant’s widow, Julia, what was then the largest royalty ever seen: $200,000. These two Twain letters, tell that story…
Twain, writing on August 11th, just three days after 60,000 worthies and every stripe of official and soldier, high and low, escorted Grant’s body through Manhattan as he, and a 1,000,000 others watched, was sure of one thing. Grant’s fame was timeless – and would last in the way of great cities which, good times or bad, were essentially indestructible. “You are certainly right in one thing,” he begins:
Gen Grant’s monument will have decayed & disappeared, 20 centuries hence — nothing but his fame will remain. But the city of New York will remain, under one name or another – as will London, Constantinople, and one or two others, whose commercial situation will always insure their being rebuilt as fast as the earthquakes can shake them down.
Grant’s book was so good that some people thought Twain not only published it, but wrote it. Or, at least, helped polish its brilliant lucidity. But Twain was not one of those people – nor, anyone who had ever received from General Grant an order, plan of battle, instruction, or report. (As President, too, Grant wrote such official documents as 19th century presidents were wont to write.) His style, Grant said, was not literary or classical. “It is just what it is and nothing else.” To Twain, as he writes here to a fellow bookman, the English publisher William Smith, that style was “admirably simple, direct and unpretentious”:
I want to send you one of my publications – the autobiography of General Grant, which I think is the most admirably simple, direct and unpretentious story that was ever put on paper by a supremely great man. I think it is a marvel of monumental modesty.
Twain continues that he has recently been compiling some statistics concerning the publication of this work for use in a speech at a dinner of publishers a week hence – but they are so fantastic, he will not use them lest they “sound like an immense brag & be too loud a contrast to the book’s modesty.” Privately, however, he is all too happy to toot his own foghorn:
We have printed & sold 610,000 single volumes, at an average of $4 each; using 906 tons of papers; & in the binding, 35,261 sheep, goat, & calf skins, & 25 1/4 miles of cloth a yard wide. There were 276 barrels (69,0000 pounds) of binder-paste used, and the gold-leaf on the backs of the books cost $21,639.50; 41 steam-presses were employed day & night, & together they turned out a complete book at every revolution.
All of this, he exults, has broken records – and done poor Mrs. Grant, a world of good:
The book was issued 14 months ago, & we have thus far paid Mrs. Grant two checks for royalties: one for $200,000, & the other for $150,000 – & more is still due her. The historic Macaulay check which hangs framed at Longmans is for $100,000. [Better take it down].
Still, he’s happy to save those kudos for his own autobiography someday. What’s important now is to remember that
The last 2/3 of the second volume was dictated by the General, dying – passing slowly away in the pitiless agonies of cancer in the mouth; he revised his work with his pencil during the last three weeks of his life – after he had become entirely speechless. He made no braver fight in the field than he made on his deathbed.
It is noted that there was a certain irony in Twain and Grant (posthumously, alas) sharing a great financial success: both were abysmal businessmen. Grant’s vulnerability to a scoundrel necessitated his writing a book on his deathbed. And Twain, still hoping long after his hapless days as a silver prospector in Nevada to strike it rich , would invest hundreds of thousands in a complicated and unreliable printing machine which ran him into bankruptcy. In a long postscript added the next day, he explains to Smith that he is “building a love of a machine during the past 11 months, & can’t… go to England without my machine; one doesn’t go abroad & leave his soul and entrails behind.” By 1894, however, the Paige Compositor had turned Twain’s insides, out – and he too, had to scurry to make money.
SAMUEL L. CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN). 1835 – 1910. American novelist and humorist. Like Huckleberry Finn, “there was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”
ULYSSES S. GRANT. 1822-1885. The greatest Union general, he became the 18th President of the United States
Autograph Letter Signed (“S.L. Clemens”), 2 pages, octavo, Elmira, August 11, 1885. To “Dear Sir”
Autograph Letter Signed, 6 pages, recto and verso, octavo, on the letterhead of Charles L. Webster & Co., Publishers, New York and Hartford, February 3rd and 4th, 1887. To William Smith.