Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant: A Phenomenal Friendship, Part 1
In the summer of 1884 former president Ulysses S. Grant screamed out in pain after he took a bite from a peach. Something was wrong with his throat. At first, his wife Julia thought he was scratched by the peach’s pit or that he was stung by a bug. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Months later, after Julia convinced him to see a doctor, Grant discovered that he had throat and mouth cancer. The family was devastated by the news, but in usual fashion, Grant decided to fight. He knew that he did not have much time to live, which meant that he had to find a way to provide for his family after his death. His problems were exacerbated by failed business investments. The only solution was for him to write his autobiography. He was approached by multiple publishing companies who were interested in producing his memoirs, but at the eleventh hour, Grant met with one of America’s most famous authors, Mark Twain.
The story of Twain and Grant began much earlier than 1884. In 1869, Samuel Clemons,who was writing Huckleberry Finn at the time, was invited to the White House to meet newly elected president Ulysses S. Grant. When he entered Grant’s office, Clemons was nervous immediately. He wrote,
”General Grant got slowly up from the table, put his pen down, and stood before me with the iron expression of a man who had not smiled for seven years, and was not intending to smile for another seven. He looked me steadily in the eye- mine lost confidence and fell. I had never confronted a great man before, and was in a miserable state of funk and inefficiency. The Senator said: “Mr. President, may I have the privilege of introducing Mr. Clemens?” The President gave my hand an unsympathetic wag and dropped it. He did not say a word, but just stood. In my trouble I could not think of anything to say… There was an awkward pause, a dreary pause, a horrible pause. Then I thought of something, and looked up into that unyielding face, and said timidly: “Mr. President, I-I am embarrassed, Are you?” His face broke- just a little- a wee glimmer, the momentary flicker of a summer-lightning smile, seven years ahead of time- and I was out and gone as soon as it was.”
Ten years later, Clemons, who had changed his name to Mark Twain, was a speaker at the reunion of the Army of the Tennessee in Chicago with Grant in attendance. Again, Twain met personally with the former president, but this time Grant played the comedian. Twain wrote, “We shook hands. There was the usual momentary pause and then the general said: “I am not embarrassed, Are you?”
In his impromptu speech, Twain alluded to future presidents who were just babies in their cradles. The New York Times from November 15, 1879 detailed Twain’s humorous speech:
“In still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind, at this moment, to trying to find some way to get his big toe into his mouth, an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest(Grant) of this evening turned his attention to some 56 years ago; (Twain turns to Grant) and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.”
Twain wrote there was a “shuddering silence” which was quickly broken up by Grant’s laughter. He said,
“Grant sat through fourteen speeches like a graven image, but I fetched him up. I broke him up, utterly! He told me he laughed til the tears came & every bone in his body ached… And, do you know, the biggest part of the success…lay in the fact that the audience saw that for once in his life he had been knocked out of his iron serenity.”
Twain was one of the few people who could make Grant break character. It was clear that Grant admired Twain. The relationship Grant fostered with Twain brought the two together, later, when he decided to write his memoirs.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Stay tuned for part two of this post, when I will be detailing how Twain and Grant teamed up to published Grant’s memoirs.
Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year, (Philadelphia: DeCapo Press, 2011).