I knew the story of Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain, or, more precisely, I knew the barebones of how Twain helped Grant publish his memoirs. I learned it years ago, when I found a first edition of two-volume The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885) in a local antique store and noticed that the publisher was the one Twain had helped to create. From reading several Twain biographies, I knew about the publisher Charles H. Webster & Co, and that Twain played a significant role in the Grant memoirs.
I knew the story, but I didn’t know the story. Author Mark Perry tells that story in Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America (2004). The subtitle may sound a bit overstated, but it’s not; as large as each of them loom in American military and literary history respectively, their friendship resulted in something of almost mythic proportions.
Grant’s work would come to be seen as the best military memoir since Caesar’s Gallic Wars; its straightforward, concise style would set the example for every military memoir that came after. And it was the Grant-Twain friendship that helped Twain to finally break the writer’s block on a story he had started and then set aside a decade earlier, one called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story of Grant and Twain’s friendship and collaboration is a significant and remarkable chapter of American literary history. And Perry tells it a lively, highly readable, and intriguing fashion.
Grant and Twain provides the basic story of the lives of both men. Grant, several years older, was born and raised in Ohio, attended West Point, and served in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. He left military service and lived in St. Louis, where his in-laws resided (right next to the suburban St. Louis biking trail I’ve traveled hundreds of times). He wasn’t much of a success at farming, and he re-enlists when the Civil War began. He was in command at some of the bloodiest engagements in the western theater of war – Shiloh and Vicksburg. President Lincoln appointed him commander of the Northern armies and he began to doggedly tear away at Robert E. Lee’s position in Virginia.
After the Confederate defeat, Grant was elected President twice. His administrations were marked by horrible scandals and corruption, but none ever touched Grant himself. He moved to New York City and became a partner in an investment house partially owned by his son.
Twain was born and raised in northeastern Missouri, with a biography inevitably tied to the Mississippi River. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined a rather irregular Confederate unit, but he soon realized he wanted no part of military life. His brother was appointed to a federal post in Nevada, and Twain accompanied him, trying prospecting and other activities before settling in on one in which he excelled – newspaper reporting. He returned east after the end of the war, continued writing, married, and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. Twain was always on the lookout for money-making ventures, virtually all of which lost money, and often major amounts of money. And so, he would take to the lecture circuit, becoming one of the best-known public speakers in America.
Grant’s investment house collapsed in 1883, and the former general and American hero faced bankruptcy. Worse still, he was diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer, and he faced the prospect of death and having nothing to provide his wife Julia and family with. He reluctantly accepted what had been urged upon him for years – to write his memoirs. He found a publisher and began the work.
Twain knew something about publishing in the Gilded Age, and he realized that Grant’s publisher knew nothing about the important role serialization could play, both to provide income and to set the stage for the entire edition of the memoirs. He convinced Grant, shortly before he was to sign his publishing contract, to switch to the publishing firm operated by Twain’s nephew. It was a wise move. Grant’s first publisher thought the memoirs could bring Grant as much as #25,000 or even $30,000. Twain saw that as a ridiculously low number, and he was right; Grant’s family would realize more than $300,000 from the serialization and publication.
And thus began a race against time – for Grant to finish his manuscript before his medical condition incapacitated him. Twain served as one of the editors, but he made virtually no changes; Grant had a natural writing style that almost seemed to edit itself. And in the process, Twain was inspired to resurrect that story he had put away years before, because he couldn’t figure out how to get Jim the runaway slave and Huck Finn to go southto find freedom for Jim.
It's a stirring story. Everyone involved became convinced that the only thing that kept Grant alive as long as he did was the intense focus on the writing.
Perry received degrees from the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy and Boston University. He has written extensively on military history, foreign affairs, and intelligence and security. His books include (1989); (1994); (1999); (2002); Grant and Twain (2004); and (2007); among others. He also co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
Grant and Twain tells the story of how two men became friends, fellow writers, and business partners to the benefit of both – but especially to the benefit of posterity.
Top illustration: Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.