How Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain Rescued Each Other’s Fortunes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes it takes two great writers to give birth to an incredible story.
By Sean Braswell
Mount McGregor, New York, June 1885
A former American president sits on a cottage porch in the Adirondack Mountains, fully wrapped in a blanket. His neck is swollen from throat cancer, making it nearly impossible for him to eat. The 63-year-old Ulysses S. Grant, notepad in hand, is slowly starving to death and is in a desperate race against time to finish the book that will provide financial security for his family. Luckily, Grant has a good friend — another American legend — one who’s in an equally precarious financial position and desperate for his dying compatriot to complete the memoir he’s agreed to help him publish: Mark Twain.
As GRANT, the new three-part miniseries event premiering on Memorial Day at 9/8c on HISTORY reveals, Grant remains a greatly under-appreciated figure from American history despite his daunting résumé. Grant was both a Civil War general who preserved a nation and a reluctant politician who helped stabilize America’s postwar economy and enforce the rights of former slaves. But he also produced one of the most remarkable pieces of writing by any president, or any American, and under the most extreme circumstances — a feat facilitated by an unexpected friendship.
“I seem to be a little embarrassed. Are you?”
The White House, Washington, D.C., 1870
Grant’s first encounter with Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, only really happened in the latter’s head. As Grant ascended the ranks of the Union leadership during the Civil War, the twentysomething Twain (13 years Grant’s junior) was busy abandoning the ranks of the small Confederate militia he had joined. And, in classic Twain style, the humorist would retroactively, and rather fancifully, attribute his decision to jettison his post after just two weeks to coming into contact with a forceful Union colonel “sweeping down on us.”
In fact, one of Colonel Grant’s first tasks in the war was to disband a group of about 1,200 secessionists in Twain’s home state of Missouri who were making trouble for Union troops. There’s no evidence that Twain was among those disbanded by Grant, but that didn’t stop him from telling a good story. “I did not know that this was the future General Grant or I would have turned and attacked him,” Twain later quipped. “I supposed it was just some ordinary colonel of no particular consequence, so I let him go.”
It’s not surprising that Twain would have embellished his proximity to Grant, a fellow Midwesterner whom the young writer greatly admired. But it was not until 1870 when the wide-eyed Twain, freshly off the publication of his first book, got the chance to meet the then-first-term President Grant when he accompanied a Nevada senator to the White House. It was an awkward encounter before the throne of power, even for the quick-witted Twain. “I shook hands and then there was a pause and silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say,” Twain wrote his wife about meeting the steely Grant. Flustered, Twain finally mumbled, “I seem to be a little embarrassed. Are you?”
It was but the first clumsy overture in a story that would play out like the plot line of a romantic comedy: a chance encounter that breeds mutual admiration, which blossoms into a growing friendship and mutual understanding, and ultimately inseparability — and financial co-dependence.
“The mortalest of mortals.”
Chicago, Illinois, November, 1879
It would take nearly a decade for the two icons to meet again, this time in Chicago. Grant had served two terms as president, steering the nation through the tumultuous period of Reconstruction. In Chicago, a parade and celebratory dinner were to be given in the former president’s honor, and one of the esteemed guests, a speaker at the dinner, was the now celebrated writer Mark Twain.
Twain was eager to see the man he so admired and with whom he had had such an awkward last encounter in Washington. And he did not disappoint. When the Chicago mayor re-introduced Twain to Grant in the VIP parade reviewing stand, Grant smirked and, displaying his remarkable memory, quipped, “Mr. Clemens, I am not embarrassed — are you?”
At the dinner in Grant’s honor, Twain was the final speaker in a series of interminable after-dinner toasts that had extended well past midnight, and the humorist decided to use his formidable wit to try to break up the usually stone-countenanced general. At one point, in the 19th century version of a Comedy Central roast, Twain irreverently conjured the image of a baby Grant, a headstrong infant determined to suck his own toes. “And if the child is but a prophecy of the man,” he injected, “there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.”
It did the trick. “I fetched him! I broke him up, utterly!” Twain later informed his wife. “I shook him up like dynamite,” he told a good friend. “He sat there fifteen minutes & laughed and cried like the mortalest of mortals.”’
“I wanted the General’s book.”
3 East 66th Street, Manhattan, New York, November, 1884
Twain may have cracked the imperturbable Grant, but it was financial fraud that nearly broke the great man in the 1880s. Taken in by the charms and reputation of a young financier named Ferdinand Ward, known as the “Napoleon of finance,” the former president lost most of his savings in the collapse of Ward’s glorified Ponzi scheme in 1884. And so, with his health failing and his finances devastated, Grant needed to earn some money, and fast.
Twain was always a much better writer and lecturer than he was an entrepreneur and investor. He had lost money on a series of misfire inventions, including a steam pulley, a magnetic telegraph and an engraving process. At the same time that Grant was fighting for financial security, Twain was (yet again) in the midst of his own pecuniary troubles as he labored over a manuscript he’d been working on for nearly a decade, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Twain had long encouraged Grant to write his memoir, and when he learned in November 1884 that the general was contemplating a meager deal with a publisher, he raced over to Grant’s home in on East 66th Street and made him a better offer: 70 percent of net profits and living expenses if he signed on with the publishing house Twain had formed with his nephew-in-law. It was a generous offer to help a friend, but the memoir also represented a highly lucrative endeavor that could rescue Twain from insolvency. As he later put it bluntly, “I wanted the General’s book, and I wanted it very much.”
Grant signed with Twain and received a much-needed $1,000 advance. And Twain was not just a source of funds — he was also a source of emotional support for a general who did not think anyone would want to read about his life. “Grant had his own kind of confidence,” says Ben Kemp, a historian and the operations manager at U.S. Grant Cottage State Historic Site, “but he really needed Twain’s confidence in him to write this book.”
“[T]he vastest book enterprise the world has ever seen.”
Mount McGregor, New York, June 1885
And write Grant did. Sitting in an overstuffed leather armchair while covered in blankets — and with a scarf covering the growing tumor on his throat — Grant labored over his manuscript, writing an incredible 336,000 words in less than a year. When he couldn’t write, he dictated to a stenographer. Twain visited Grant frequently and reviewed drafts of the manuscript. He was awestruck by the general’s memory and prose. At one point, as Twain recalled, Grant dictated a 9,000-word description of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in a single sitting, “never pausing, never hesitating for a word, never repeating — and in the written-out copy he made hardly a correction.”
Twain had been forced to borrow more than $200,000 to publish the book, and he embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign to get that amount back, including retaining a 10,000-man army of war veterans to sell the two-volume set door-to-door across the nation — what Twain boasted was “the vastest book enterprise the world has ever seen.”
By mid-June 1885, Grant was close to finishing, and he moved north to a cottage near Mount McGregor in upstate New York to escape the summer heat in the city and to make the final edits. Twain visited the now voiceless Grant at Mount McGregor and stayed for a couple of days, sharing the good news that he had pre-sold more than 100,000 copies of his memoir. “Any little bit of uncertainty in Grant’s mind about the book was removed,” says Ben Kemp. “He had taken care of his family.”
Finally, around 8 a.m. on July 23, 1885, Grant died peacefully, at age 63, just a week after finishing what would become an over 500-page memoir.
“[N]o man can improve upon it.”
Union Square, New York, August 1885
When the two-volume memoir was published later that year, it was an overnight success, and is still regarded as a masterpiece. More than 300,000 copies sold in the first print run, and Grant’s widow, Julia, would receive more than $450,000 ($11 million today) in royalties. For years, because of Twain’s close supervision of the project and Grant’s weakened condition, many assumed he had helped write it — rumors that drove Twain crazy. “There is no higher literature than these modest, simple memoirs,” he claimed. “Their style is flawless … no man can improve upon it.”
Getting his friend’s memoir published would distract from Twain’s own career but ultimately net much-needed funds. Still, despite his earnings from the memoir and Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s publishing company went bankrupt less than 10 years later.
On Aug. 8, 1885, more than 1.5 million people attended Grant’s funeral procession in New York City, including Twain who watched the throngs from his publishing office overlooking Union Square. “I think his book kept him alive several months,” Twain reflected about his friend’s death and last achievement, shortly after Grant passed away. “He was a very great man and superlatively good.”
This Memorial Day, uncover more of Grant’s unlikely legacy by tuning in to GRANT, a three-night miniseries event from HISTORY and executive producers Leonardo DiCaprio and Ron Chernow. Tune in at 9/8c on HISTORY to learn more about one of the nation’s greatest military leaders — and a president who forever changed the nation.