On the Literary Wheelings and Dealings of Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain
The World of Publishing, Unchanged for 150 Years
Ulysses S. Grant had refrained from following the example of other Civil War generals who published their memoirs with a haste he found preening and self-aggrandizing. He disliked talking about himself and professed that he lacked the literary ability and industry to hazard such a venture. “Oh, I’m not going to write any book,” he told a reporter after leaving the White House. “There are books enough already.” The Century Magazine, which planned a series of articles entitled “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” sought Grant’s participation, but in January 1884 he vowed that “I have no idea of undertaking the task of writing any of the articles the Century requests.” With the collapse of his brokerage firm, Grant & Ward, the Century editors revived their offer to have him write on his battles, noting that the “country looks with so much regret and sympathy upon General Grant’s misfortune.” Though touched by their concern for his plight, Grant resisted the invitation to oblige them.
With their finances in ruins, the Grants closed up the East Sixty-Sixth Street house and took up summer residence in Long Branch. The household staff had been dismissed and Julia, knocked from her high perch, was reduced to cooking in the twenty-eight-room cottage. On June 2, Grant swallowed a peach and suffered excruciating pain—the episode related at the start of this narrative. “He walked up and down the room and out to the piazza, and rinsed his throat again and again,” Julia recalled. Mystified, she thought an insect must have lodged in the peach. At first, Grant minimized a chronic sore throat that he had, but when the pain intensified in July, his next-door neighbor, George Childs, suggested he consult a Philadelphia doctor named Jacob Mendez Da Costa who was then visiting him. When he examined Grant, he discovered a growth on the roof of his mouth, prescribed pain medication, and advised Grant to consult his family physician, Dr. B. Fordyce Barker, as soon as possible. Barker was then on a European trip, which allowed Grant to stall for several months before seeing him. Was this another example of Grant’s lifelong stoicism or a childlike escape from frightening news?
Weak and lame, still on crutches, Grant knew he needed to repair his finances and agreed to a visit from a Century editor. The magazine dispatched thirty-one-year-old Robert Underwood Johnson, who found Grant garbed in a curious outfit for a warm summer day. Because of his sore throat, he had wrapped a cape around his shoulders and a white silk scarf around his neck—details that would assume new significance in retrospect. Grant talked about his perilous financial state, venting anger at Ferdinand Ward. “In his direct and simple fashion,” Johnson wrote, “he reviewed the debacle of his fortunes without restraint, showing deep feeling, even bitterness, as to his betrayal.” As Johnson listened and discovered Grant’s sensitive nature, he mentally likened him to “a wounded lion.” Once he had cleansed himself of anger, Grant got down to business. “He told me, frankly and simply,” wrote Johnson, “that he had arrived at Long Branch almost penniless.” In the end, Grant agreed to write four articles—on Shiloh, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, and Appomattox—for $500 apiece. Later on he decided to dispense with Lee’s surrender in favor of the battle of Chattanooga.
Largely secluded in the house, Grant set up a white wooden table in a room facing the seaside porch and it soon became cluttered with maps, books, and military papers. By the end of June, Grant had completed his first article on Shiloh, but it sorely disappointed the Century editors. Written in Grant’s pithy style, it was arid and compact and read like a bloodless report. Johnson hurried over to Long Branch for a pep talk with his new writer. A gifted editor, he drew Grant into personal reminiscences about Shiloh and made him see the difference between a dry recitation and one enlivened by personal impressions. This came as a revelation to Grant, who was an apt pupil and promised to start anew. As he did so, he felt a spurt of liberating energy. “Why, I am positively enjoying the work,” he told Johnson. “I am keeping at it every night and day, and Sundays.” Under Johnson’s tutelage, Grant discovered new dimensions to his writing, disclosing a huge literary gift that had lurked there all along.
Nothing if not dogged, Grant marched on to Vicksburg, averaging more than four hours of writing per day, one visitor recalling Grant’s pen “racing over his pad.” Encouraged by Johnson to describe events more freely, he went from excessive concision to a more richly detailed style, completing a draft by the end of August. Grant’s stunning burst of prose led the Century editors to contemplate something more ambitious: publishing a memoir by Grant. To reel in his catch, Roswell Smith, the company president, traveled to Long Branch and chatted with Grant as they sat on wicker chairs on the verandah. At first, Grant reacted coyly, wondering whether “anyone would be interested in a book by me.” Smith replied, “General, do you not think the public would read with avidity Napoleon’s personal account of his battles?” He came away impressed by Grant’s firm grasp of publishing: “I found him thoroughly intelligent in relation to the subscription book business, and very much disgusted with the way it is usually managed.” At this point, Grant made no contractual commitment, preferring to wait until he had made further headway with the articles, which would form the basis of the book. Spending the rest of the month writing, he experienced the pride of authorship, pleasure of craftsmanship, and delight of reliving past triumphs. Greatly preoccupied with money, Grant revised his will on September 2, bequeathing his entire estate to Julia, about whose financial future he worried incessantly.
By October, the Grants were back in New York, sharing their East Sixty-Sixth Street house with other refugees from the Grant & Ward debacle—Fred and Ida Grant and their children. Belatedly Grant consulted Dr. B. Fordyce Barker, who discovered a suspiciously swollen area on the back of his tongue and immediately referred him to Dr. John H. Douglas, a distinguished, white-bearded throat specialist, who had devised a wartime remedy for scurvy for Union soldiers. He examined Grant thoroughly, probing his mouth with his finger, and found a hard, swollen area at the base of the tongue. Using a mirror, he located three cancerous lesions on the roof of the mouth. At once, Grant suspected the worst. “Is it cancer?” he asked. Cancer was then routinely deemed a death sentence and the doctor shaded the brutal truth. “General, the disease is serious, epithelial in character, and sometimes capable of being cured.” Douglas was far more pessimistic than he let on. Using a cocaine and water mixture, he relieved some of the pain and swabbed out accumulated mucus and other debris, telling Grant to come back twice daily for treatment. Grant told neither Julia nor Fred what had happened, although he confided in Badeau. “When he returned he said the physician told him that his throat was affected by a complaint with a cancerous tendency. He seemed serious but not alarmed . . . Still there was disquietude and even alarm—the terrible word cancer was itself almost a knell.” When Grant confided in Julia, she fought the truth and refused to believe the ailment could be fatal.
Gradually Grant was ground down into a mass of pain. He had a severe attack of neuralgia and, to relieve it, his dentist extracted several teeth without anesthesia, only worsening his misery. Extracting the teeth also made it easier for Dr. Douglas to clean out his throat. Every day, Grant collected his crutches and took a horse-drawn streetcar to see the doctor, unable to afford private cabs any longer. Passengers must have been startled to find themselves sitting next to America’s most renowned individual. Julia finally persuaded him to indulge in a carriage.
In early November, Douglas snipped a slice of tissue from Grant’s throat and sent it to Dr. George Frederick Shrady, an eminent pathologist, who had treated President Garfield after the shooting. Douglas was careful not to identify the patient. When Shrady diagnosed the problem as cancer of the throat and tongue, Douglas asked if he was certain. “Perfectly sure,” said Shrady crisply. “This patient has a lingual epithelioma—a cancer of the tongue.” Douglas now disclosed that Grant was the patient. “Then General Grant is doomed,” he replied. He predicted that Grant would endure agonizing pain and be dead within a year.
When Dr. Shrady met with Grant, he suspected a connection between his compulsive smoking and his cancer and advised him to restrict himself to one cigar a day. Pretty soon Grant lost his taste for tobacco altogether and, after a lifetime of oral cravings, smoked his last cigar on November 20, 1884. A journalist named C. E. Meade, a nephew of George Gordon Meade, claimed Grant puffed on his last cigar while visiting a horse farm in Goshen, New York. “Gentlemen,” Grant announced to his companions, “this is the last cigar I shall ever smoke. The doctors tell me that I will never live to finish the work on which my whole energy is centered these days . . . if I do not cease indulging in these fragrant weeds. It is hard to give up an old and cherished friend, that has been your comforter and solace through many weary nights and days. But my unfinished work must be completed, for the sake of those that are near and dear to me.”
Julia never seemed to draw the proper connection between her husband’s smoking and his cancer. In her memoirs, she recounted a conversation with the emperor of Brazil at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. She had proudly pointed to bundles of American tobacco only to have the emperor object. “Humph, what is it good for?” Julia rushed to the defense of smoking in her high-spirited fashion. “Why, everything . . . It is a great pleasure to smoke. Smoking quiets the nerves. If one is wakeful it soothes one and promotes sleep. Smoking is a great assistant to digestion.” In other words, Julia still believed in the beneficial effects of tobacco long after her husband had likely died from it.
Even grimacing with pain, Grant tracked presidential politics intently. He rejoiced when Chester Arthur lost the Republican nomination to James G. Blaine, who he believed would trounce the Democratic candidate, Governor Grover Cleveland of New York, who had earned a reputation opposing political corruption. Grant had relented in his attitude toward Blaine: “To reject such a man in all the plenitude of his knowledge, ability and will for a man of Grover Cleveland’s limited experience would be beneath the good sense of the American people.” The American people begged to differ and the rotund Cleveland became the first elected Democrat in the White House since the Civil War. A new national consensus took a more conciliatory view of secession and blasted Reconstruction as an outright failure, giving Grant an additional motivation to publish his memoir and counter this growing revisionist view.
The sudden intimation of his own mortality made Grant worry he would die and leave Julia impoverished. As a result, he told the delighted Century editors that he wished to publish his memoir with them. He recruited Fred as his researcher and editor and asked Adam Badeau to move into the house as his editor, promising to give him modest payments from the book royalties—the most Grant could afford in his straitened circumstances. He was so harassed by pecuniary worries that he gave up his pew in a Madison Avenue church, admitting sheepishly he did so “because of my inability to pay the rent.” Badeau had a host of unspoken reservations about assisting Grant. Having already published three volumes on Grant’s wartime campaigns, he feared they would be overshadowed by Grant’s work. He also disliked being sidetracked from a novel he was writing. A querulous man with an ever fragile ego, Badeau didn’t voice his concerns, letting them fester beneath the surface. Grant was very clear that Badeau would provide research and that he himself would write. “I am going to do it myself,” he told a visitor, flashing his old doughty independence. “If I do not do it myself it will not be mine.” Badeau agreed to Grant’s terms and took a bedroom at the East Sixty-Sixth Street house.
By late November 1884, pain had become Grant’s constant companion. Avoiding solid foods, he had his devoted black valet, Harrison Terrell, bring him milk on a tray twice daily. Even liquids were pure torture for him to swallow. As he told George Childs, “Nothing gives me so much pain as swallowing water,” comparing it to drinking “molten lead.” His daily meals became harrowing ordeals and Adam Badeau left a graphic vignette of Grant’s struggles at the dinner table:
I shall always recall his figure as he sat at the head of the table, his head bowed over his plate, his mouth set grimly, his features clinched in the endeavor to conceal the expression of pain, especially from Mrs. Grant, who sat at the other end. He no longer carved or helped the family, and at last was often obliged to leave before the meal was over, pacing the hall or the adjoining library in his agony. At this time he said to me that he had no desire to live if he was not to recover. He preferred death at once to lingering, hopeless disease.
Whenever Grant lay down, he suffered from a ghastly sensation of being strangled. He therefore preferred to sit in an armchair, his legs resting on a chair before him with a blanket thrown over them, a silk handkerchief wound around his neck, and a woolen cap on his head. Unable to lie down normally, he was tormented by insomnia. On one occasion, Dr. Shrady was summoned to calm and reassure him. “Pretend you are a boy again,” he advised Grant. “Curl up your legs, lie over on your side and bend your neck while I tuck the covers around your shoulders.” As a docile Grant obeyed, he said, “Now go to sleep like a good boy,” and Grant soon fell fast asleep. But in his fitful sleep, he was often disturbed by nightmares. One night, as Fred stood listening, he heard his father bellow in his sleep, “The cannon did it.”
Always an active, enterprising man, Grant lapsed into unaccustomed apathy, sitting in his armchair, hands folded, staring blankly into space. “It was like a man gazing into his open grave,” wrote Badeau. That December, when Sherman visited, he found a disconsolate Julia, who worried that her husband had withdrawn “into a silent moody state looking the picture of woe.” Attempting to rally her, Sherman conjured up the distant war days when a taciturn Grant sat silently at headquarters as he himself paced, swore, and talked a blue streak. Sherman noticed that Grant warmed up in his presence and that of any other faithful comrade from yesteryear. Seeing his stricken friend transported Sherman back to their wartime camaraderie and the purer love he had once felt for Grant.
Grant’s catatonic state didn’t last. Soon he was devoting four or five hours daily to his memoirs, working in a second-floor room overlooking East Sixty-Sixth Street, surrounded by huge volumes that housed his military orders and maps. As he worked, Julia constantly replenished bouquets of fresh flowers. In the evening he sometimes read aloud to her from the manuscript. For a time, his pain eased, permitting more work as he wrote on loose sheets of lined paper in a clear, flowing hand. Lest she descend into depression, Julia struggled to keep her emotions in check and feigned a brisk, businesslike manner. “Her calmness and self-control almost seemed coldness,” said Badeau, “only we knew that this was impossible.”
The Century editors offered Grant a standard 10 percent royalty for his memoir with projected sales of twenty-five thousand copies. That summer the Century editor Richard Watson Gilder told Robert Johnson that Grant “ought not to be permitted to get too high an idea of immediate sales and profits. We have never had such a card before as Grant . . . and we mustn’t let that slip!”
They didn’t reckon on the intervention of another prospective publisher who was dropping by to see Grant. Grant had always been fascinated by Mark Twain, a frequent lunchtime guest at Grant & Ward. Three years earlier Twain had attempted to persuade him to compose his memoirs only to have Grant deprecate his own writing ability. In February 1884, Twain set up his nephew Charles Webster in a new publishing outfit known as Charles L. Webster and Company whose sole mission, at first, was to publish Huckleberry Finn and other Twain works. With this venture Twain was bogged down in debt from the outset. “I am like everybody else—everything tied up in properties that cannot be sold except at fearful loss,” he told William Dean Howells that March. “It has been the roughest twelve-month I can remember for losses, ill luck, and botched business.” Twain had a money-crazed side to his nature in which he resembled many of the arrivistes he satirized, and he expected Grant’s memoirs to be a bonanza that would salvage his endangered publishing firm.
In November 1884, after giving a speech, Twain enjoyed a late supper at the studio of Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century Magazine, and learned that Grant was preparing four articles for the magazine. Gilder boasted of having rescued Grant from poverty with a $500 check for his initial piece. Twain was aghast: he thought the amount scandalously small—the literary equivalent of buying “a dollar bill of a blind man and [paying] him ten cents for it.” When Gilder let slip the momentous news that Grant had agreed to write his memoirs, Twain, agog, made a silent resolution. “I wanted the General’s book,” he said, “and I wanted it very much.” He was instantly riveted by prospective riches from the project, although he didn’t yet know that Grant had cancer.
The next morning, Twain hurried over to East Sixty-Sixth Street where Grant confirmed Gilder’s terms and added that he was about to sign a contract. When Fred read the proposed terms aloud, with the 10 percent royalty, Twain silently grunted in disbelief. He pitied Grant as a simple, tenderhearted babe in the woods. “I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh,” he explained. As he later wrote, the Century had the barefaced cheek to offer Grant the same royalty it would have given “to any unknown Comanche Indian whose book they had reason to believe might sell 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 copies.” Twain knew Grant’s memoirs would sell hundreds of thousands of copies and assured him the Centuryterms were “simply absurd and should not be considered for an instant.” Insisting that Grant was selling himself much too cheaply, he said he should up the stakes and demand a 20 percent royalty or 70 percent of net profits.
Twain knew he was muscling in on the Century’s cozy deal with Grant and could be accused of sharp practice as well. So he concocted a story about walking home in the rain from a lecture when he fleetingly overheard two shadowy figures mention Grant’s decision to publish his memoirs. If Twain had no scruples about stealing Grant from the Century, Grant was more honorable. When he told Twain that demanding such exorbitant royalties would place him in the position of a robber, the famous author was ready with a witticism: “I said that if he regarded that as a crime it was because his education had been neglected. I said it was not a crime, and was always rewarded in heaven with two halos.” When Grant asked what publisher would possibly accede to such conditions, Twain said any reputable publisher in America. Still Grant balked at deserting the Century. “To his military mind and training it seemed disloyalty,” recalled Twain. The next day, the author returned with a novel proposition: “Sell me the Memoirs, General.” He proposed a 20 percent royalty or 70 percent of net profits and offered to write a $50,000 check on the spot.
It took Grant time to fathom the wisdom and morality of Twain’s superior offer. Sweetening the terms, Twain offered to give Grant living expenses as he composed the book and even offered Jesse a place on the publishing house staff—no trifling incentive for Grant as he fretted about his family. As he mulled over Twain’s offer, Grant must have recalled how many times he had been fleeced in his life. For once he would not allow himself to be shortchanged. “On reexamining the Contract prepared by the Century people,” he told George Childs, “I see that it is all in favor of the publisher, with nothing left for the Author.” Grant leaned toward the 70 percent profit plan in which he would make money only if Twain did too, but the latter tried to convince him that the 20 percent royalty was a better deal for him. In the end, the honorable Grant insisted on the 70 percent profit arrangement.
By January, Grant’s condition had deteriorated and he required daily visits from Drs. Douglas and Shrady. When he meditated a therapeutic trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, the doctors told him he was too weak to make the journey. Formerly robust and brawny, Grant began to lose flesh rapidly, shedding 30 pounds. At one point, Julia was told the “dreadful truth” by the doctors, but could not accept it: “I could not believe that God . . . would take this great, wise, good man from us, to whom he was so necessary and so beloved.” Her whole life had revolved around her husband and she tried to face the stark truth as bravely as she could. “Genl Grant is very, very ill,” she told a friend on February 28. “I cannot write how ill—my tears blind me.”
With Julia having sold her property in Washington, the Grants lived in passable comfort again. Both Twain and Charles Webster visited constantly, preaching the virtues of their publishing house. They brought a leather-bound edition of Huckleberry Finn, inscribed to Fred’s daughter, Julia, who remembered Twain “with his shaggy mane of long white hair, waving or carelessly tossed about his low brow, and his protruding eyebrows, which almost hid the deep-set eyes shining beneath them.” She thought him a “crazy man, and I would draw close to one or another of the grown-ups when he was around.” Soon Fred Grant was paging through Huckleberry Finn by candlelight.
Behind closed doors, Twain and Webster went wild with excitement at the prospect of landing Grant’s memoirs. “There’s big money for us both in that book,” Webster told Twain, “and on the terms indicated in my note to the General we can make it pay big.” Returning from a lecture tour in late February, Twain was taken aback by how gray and haggard Grant had grown. “I mean you shall have the book—I have about made up my mind to that,” Grant reassured him, but he wanted to write first to Roswell Smith of the Century Company “and tell him I have so decided. I think this is due him.” Once again, Grant instinctively did the decent thing. As Twain was leaving, Fred pulled him aside and divulged that doctors thought his father might have only a few weeks to live—news that didn’t deter Twain from the deal.
On February 27, 1885, Grant signed a contract with Charles L. Webster and Company and Twain rushed a much-needed thousand-dollar check into his hands. “It was a shameful thing,” recalled Twain, “that a man who had saved his country and its government from destruction should still be in a position where so small a sum—$1,000—could be looked upon as a godsend.” The news, announced a few days later, created a hubbub in the press. The memoirs would be sold by subscription in two-volume boxed sets, lessening reliance on reviews, and Twain mapped out a sales campaign worthy of Grant’s military efficiency. He divided the country into sixteen sections with as many general agents, who would oversee an army of ten thousand door-to-door canvassers. They would follow a sales manual that sounded like Twain shouting through a megaphone. They were told to eschew “the Bull Run voice” and “keep pouring hot shot” into the hapless customer until he signed on the dotted line. Not missing a trick, Twain would have retired veterans knocking on doors, asking people to help out their old general. Twain hailed this campaign as “the vastest book enterprise the world has ever seen.”
On March 1, 1885, The New York Times ran a headline that robbed Ulysses and Julia Grant of any remaining hope: “Grant Is Dying.” The subhead continued: “Dying Slowly from Cancer; Gravely Ill; Sinking into the Grave; Gen. Grant’s Friends Give up Hope.” The article, not mincing words, quoted Grant’s doctors as saying that he had only a few months to live “and that his death may occur in a short time.” It pointed out that Grant had been advised by Dr. Da Costa to see his physician but had dangerously deferred the visit. By the next day, the national press corps had camped outside the East Sixty-Sixth Street residence. The extraordinary outpouring of bipartisan concern blotted out the scandals of Grant’s presidency and restored him to his rightful niche in the American pantheon. Hundreds of sympathetic messages piled up at the Grant residence, including telegrams from Jefferson Davis and the sons of Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston. A black man from Washington, George M. Arnold, told Fred Grant “to let Gen Grant know how the Colored people of this country feel towards him, how they love honir [sic] and pray for him.”
Grant was stunned by the grim prognosis of the newspapers. “That his days were numbered was an intimation for which he was not prepared,” wrote Badeau. At times, he hobbled over to the window and gazed at the correspondents keeping a constant vigil outside his windows, offering them a wan smile. The power of the new mass media made Grant’s illness a national spectacle, with his doctors offering twice-daily updates on his condition. Grant had always been at his best when dealing with the hard realities of life and he accepted his plight with majestic fortitude.
Grant’s illness gave fresh impetus to efforts to relieve his financial distress. He still hoped to be placed on the army retired list with the rank and full pay of general, which would endow him with $13,500 per annum. When President Arthur proposed a special pension for him, he hotly resisted, believing this would tag him as an object of charity. William Tecumseh Sherman opposed Grant’s restoration to the army retired list, preferring an outright pension, telling Senator John Logan that “to give the president the right to place General Grant on duty as a full General on our small Peace Establishment, will lead to intrigues damaging to the Army, and making the situation of both Genl Sheridan & myself most uncomfortable.” Sherman’s view soon found its way into the press, and when Logan transmitted it to Grant, he grew indignant. “He is not looking after the interests of the Army,” Grant snapped, “nor do I believe he represents their feeling in regard to the bill you champion.” It was yet another proof of the private war Sherman had waged against Grant, usually without the latter’s knowledge. Perhaps embarrassed by the disclosure, Sherman began to lobby to restore Grant to the army list.
On February 16, the anniversary of Fort Donelson’s fall, the retirement bill was voted down, leaving Grant sorely disappointed. Then the New York Times story on his illness altered the political atmosphere in Washington, resuscitating the bill’s prospects. Time, however, was short: the new Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, would be sworn in at noon on March 4. When Congress adjourned on the night of March 3 without passing the bill, Grant despaired. “You know during the last day of a session everything is in turmoil,” he reflected. “Such a thing cannot possibly be passed.” On the morning of March 4, in an extraordinary sequence of events, the House approved the bill right before the noon deadline. Senators had already adjourned to the Capitol for the inauguration. They were abruptly rounded up and herded back into the Senate chamber, the hands of the clock were turned back twenty minutes, and, to tempestuous applause, they approved Grant’s bill. Chester Arthur hurried to the Capitol to sign it. As his last presidential act, he nominated Grant, and President Cleveland renewed his commission as general of the army. Chester Arthur instructed the president pro tempore of the Senate to send Grant a congratulatory telegram.
Mark Twain was with Grant when it arrived and witnessed the tremendous tonic it administered to his spirits, likening it to “raising the dead.” All those present knew it was Grant’s fervent wish to die a full general and they stood there brimming with emotion. Only Grant could contain his emotions. “He read the telegram, but not a shade or suggestion of a change exhibited itself in his iron countenance,” Twain said. “The volume of his emotion was greater than all the other emotions there present combined, but he was able to suppress all expression of it and make no sign.” Typically laconic, Grant said, “I am grateful the thing has passed.” Julia was ebullient: “Hurrah, they have brought us back our old commander.” That same day, the army’s adjutant general officially notified Grant of his reappointment and, in his own hand, Grant slowly scrawled his reply. “I accept the position of General of the Army on the retired list.”
From Ron Chernow’s Grant, courtesy Penguin Press. Copyright 2017, Ron Chernow.