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HERE’S ANOTHER in my series about U.S. Presidents who demonstratively knew how to read a book and even write one. Ulysses S. Grant’s literary effort involved his friend Mark Twain, a fatal illness and a con man who in a sense precipitated Grant’s authorship. Today, the book is highly respected, even earning a 2016 movie mention.
After President Grant’s second term in office, he and his wife took a trip around the world in 1877. Then he got caught up with Ferdinand Ward, a young investor, some would say con man. Ward was first known as the Young Napoleon of Finance, and later as the Best-Hated Man in the United States.
The Grant & Ward banking and brokerage firm opened in 1880. It struggled along briefly on the strength of Grant’s name. And then in 1884, it collapsed in a Ponzi scheme of Ward’s concoction.
This left Grant impoverished. His friend Mark Twain suggested that, to ease this quandary, Grant had an important story to tell. And, indeed, Twain helped to publish the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a two-volume work recounting Grant’s military career during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
While writing the book, Grant was already suffering greatly from cancer of the throat. Adam Badeau, a former staff member, helped with the book, but left before its completion. As the cancer spread through Grant’s body, he continued writing, at times forcing himself to finish as many as 50 pages a day. The manuscript was completed on July 18, 1885. Grant died five days later.
His contemporaries’ memoirs tended to be flowery, overblown and occasionally self-serving. Grant’s writing was honest and thoughtful. As an example, here’s an excerpt from his account of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865:
“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us….”
Grant also addressed legends that had arose around his leadership. About one, he wrote, “Like many other stories, it would be very good if it were only true.”
He also wrote, “I am not egoist enough to suppose all this significance should be given because I was the object of it.”
He knew death was near when he wrote of his wish for the North and South to live in peace: “I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel within me that it is to be so….”
Twain compared his friend’s work to the classic Julius Caesar’s Commentaries. Gertrude Stein was quoted as saying she could not think of Grant and his book without weeping.
It was announced in 2015 that an annotated edition of Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is being assembled by the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and Museum located at Mississippi State University.
The 2016 movie Genius pays a tribute to Grant’s Memoirs. In the movie, when dealing with Thomas Wolfe, a self-indulgent undisciplined author, famed Scribner book editor Max Perkins praises Grant as a model of dedicated authorship. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017