HISTORY is MORE than just names and dates

Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant: A Phenomenal Friendship, Part 2

A few months after Twain’s hilarious speech, Grant decided to run for a third presidential term. His political supporters rallied for him. At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Grant nearly received the nomination, but James Garfield was able to secure a majority of the votes. Grant understood the implications of not receiving the candidacy. He was only making six thousand dollars a year, so he needed to make investments which would sustain his family financially.[1]

In the fall of 1880, with help from his wealthier friends, Grant moved to New York City and took up residence on East Sixty-Sixth Street.  Grant’s first venture was the promotion of international free trade, specifically in Mexico. Grant was president of the Mexican Southern Railroad and of a company that promoted a canal across the Central American isthmus. That same year, Grant’s son Buck formed a Wall Street brokerage firm with Ferdinand Ward, with Grant himself investing heavily in the firm. In 1882, Grant was appointed by President Chester A. Arthur to open a reciprocal-trade agreement with Mexico, which resulted in the Grant-Romero Treaty of 1883. It created a list of goods that could be traded free from tariff.[2]

Meanwhile, Mark Twain was focusing on his own career. He was in the process of writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while composing other works. In November of 1881, Century magazine published one of Twain’s stories entitled “A Curious Experience.” [3] When Grant moved to New York, Twain was able to rekindle the friendship. The two met numerous times to discuss war and Twain’s literary works. That October, Twain, Grant, and famous author William Dean Howells had lunch. The conversation started out lighthearted and cheerful. Grant was recalling his experience at West Point when he and his classmate would draw “caricatures of the professors and playing jokes of all kinds on everybody.”[4] During the discussion, Twain shifted the conversation towards Grant’s writing career. It was the first time the two discussed Grant’s memoirs. Grant brushed off the idea. He considered his writing poor, and he was “sure that the book would have no sale.” Also, financially, Grant did not see the necessity in writing his story.[5]

According to Twain in late 1883 or early 1884, he introduced Yung Wing, a Chinese Minister, to Grant. In his autobiography, Twain remarked the Grant was “cooped up in his room with a severe rheumatism resulting from a fall on the ice, which he had got some months before.” Wing hoped Grant would help promote a military railroad system in China. Wing believed Grant’s positive relationship with China, which he cultivated while on his world tour, would bolster the project and its validity. Grant did not see the financial opportunity in the project, but he respected its intent to better the Chinese way of life. He told Wing that he would invest his financial efforts at a more favorable time, but still voice his support for the project. [6]

In May of 1884, Grant’s future became murky. Ferdinand Ward visited Grant and gave him troubling news. Ward stated that he needed $150,000 to secure Grant’s investments with the firm and the bank. Grant, always trusting of his colleagues, took Ward’s word. Reluctantly, he obtained a personal loan from wealthy business man William Vanderbilt. Based on most accounts, Grant was unaware of the impending danger. Ward had developed a Ponzi scheme, and it was only a matter of time before everything collapsed. On May 6th, Grant made his way into Grant & Ward headquarters, where his son Buck was waiting. Buck stated, “Father, everything is bursted and we cannot get a cent out of the concern.”[7] After it was all said and done, he lost his initial $100,000 investment, and the $150,000 he received from Vanderbilt. Grant was broke. According to most accounts, he left the presidency a “poor” man, but the failed investment of Grant & Ward left him utterly penniless.[8]


No more than a month later, the peach incident occurred.  Grant recognized a problem with his throat, but he would not know the diagnosis for a few months. By mid-June, he started his literary career. After meeting with the editors of Century magazine, he decided to write four articles on the Civil War. In the agreement they made, Grant would receive $500 for each article published. Twain was not aware of Grant’s meeting with Century. He later wrote, “I knew nothing of all this, although I had been a number of times to the General’s house to pass half an hour talking and smoking a cigar.”[9]

For the rest of the summer, Grant spent his time writing the Century articles, with author Adam Badeau. In September, before any confirmed diagnosis, he signed a new last will and testament.[10] He recognized the potential outcome of his diagnosis. On October 22, he met with leading throat specialist Dr. John H. Douglas. Dr. Douglas informed Grant that he had an “epithelial” disease, and that it could possibly be cured. Nevertheless, in late November he stopped smoking.[11]

 Earlier in November, Twain was walking out of Chickering Hall with his wife when he overheard Richard Gilder, the editor of Century magazine, discussing Grant’s Civil War articles. Twain said, “I pricked up my ears.” He then heard Gilder talking about Grant’s interest in publishing his memoirs. Twain was stunned by Gilder’s statement that Grant received only $500 per article. Twain said:

“The thing which astounded me was, admirable man as Gilder certainly is, and with a heart which is in the right place, it had never seemed to occur to him that to offer General Grant $500 for a magazine article was not only the monumental insult of the nineteenth century, but of all centuries.”[12]

GrantTwainSusy2Twain knew it was time to make a move. He was understood the importance of Grant’s story and potential profits the former president could net. The next morning, Twain went over to Grant’s house to verify what Gilder had mentioned the night before. Twain asked if any deal had been signed between Grant and Century to publish his memoirs. Grant said a contract had been drawn up, but had not been signed; he read the contract out loud. Twain said he “didn’t know whether to cry or laugh.” According to Twain, the contract made two propositions “one at 10 per cent royalty and the other offer of half the profits on the book after subtracting every sort of expense connected with it, including office rent, clerk hire, advertising and everything else.” Twain looked at Grant, and told him that “the Century offer was simply absurd and should not be considered.” Twain said that Grant should receive “20 per cent on the retail price of the book, or if he preferred the partnership policy then he ought to have 70 per cent of the profits on each volume over and above the mere cost of making that volume.” Twain offered to publish the book for Grant, at a much fairer price, under the auspices of Twain’s own publishing firm Charles L. Webster & Co. Grant considered the offer but made no final decision that day.[13

Twain’s visit revealed to Grant the  publishing possibilities available to him. For the next few weeks, while Twain was in the West, his partner Charles L. Webster met with Grant. By November 23rd, Grant was leaning towards Twain’s offer. In a letter to George W. Childs, he wrote, “On reexamining the Contract prepared by the Century people I see that it is all in favor of the publisher, with nothing left for the Author. I am offered very much more favorable terms by the Chas L. Webster & Co. Mark Twain is the Company. The house is located at 658 Broadway. I inclose you their card.”[14] Afterwards, Childs spoke with Twain, stating “it was plain to see that the General, on the score of friendship, was so distinctly inclined toward you (Twain) that the advice which would please him best would be the advice to turn the book over to you (Twain).”[15]

In December of 1884, Twain offered Grant $25,000 for each manuscript volume submitted, and a $50,000 advance. According to Twain, the offer “seemed to distress him.” Grant did not feel comfortable taking such a large sum of money with a chance of the publisher losing out. Grant was not ready to make a decision.

On February 21, 1885, Twain, who just finished a lecture tour, was visiting Grant. Grant’s son Buck pulled Twain aside and informed him about his father’s cancer diagnosis. Buck said the physicians “considered him (Grant) to be under sentence of death and that he would not be likely to live more than a fortnight or three weeks longer.” [16]

1000509261001_2224015652001_Bio-Biography-Mark-Twain-Memoirs-of-Ulysses-S-Grant-SF-HD-768x432-16x9Six days later, on February 27, Grant signed a contract with Charles L. Webster & Co.[17] Rumors immediately started spreading about Twain’s “scheme” to publish Grant’s book. Also, there were accusations Grant passed on Century because they would not give his son Buck a position.[18] Nonetheless, the deal was in place, and before the memoirs were even in print, there were hundreds of thousands of pre-orders.

800px-US_Grant_in_1885On June 29th, Twain made a three-day visit to Grant, who was staying at Mount McGregor in Wilton, New York. By July 18th, both volumes of Grant’s memoirs were ready for print. Sadly, no more than 5 days after finishing his memoirs, Grant passed away. When Twain received the news, he made an entry in his journal:

“On board train, Binghamton, July 23, 1885,- 10 a.m. The news is that Gen. Grant died about 2 hours ago- at 5 minutes past 8. The last time I saw him was July 1st & 2d, at Mt. McGregor. I then believed he would live several months. He was still adding little perfecting details to his book- a preface, among other things. He was entirely through, a few days later. Since then, the lack of any strong interest to employ his mind has enabled the tedious weariness to kill him. I think his book kept him alive several months. He was a very great man- & superlatively good.”[19]

dead u s grant

The printing of Grant’s memoirs pressed on. Now, his memoirs would be published posthumously. After much work, the first volume was published on December 1, 1885, with copies selling for between $7 and $25. The second volume was published on March 1, 1886, selling over 300,000 copies. Mrs. Julia Grant, Ulysses’s wife, received the largest ever royalty check until then: $200,000. In all, Mrs. Grant received close to $500,000 in royalty checks for the memoirs. [20]

The relationship that Twain and Grant cultivated during the second halves of their lives was legendary. How could two of the most well-known, but characteristically unalike, figures from nineteenth-century form a friendship?[21] On the surface, they could not seem any more different, but internally the two were nearly identical. Both men came from humble backgrounds with little expectation of success, both dealt with personal vices, and most importantly, both prospered and accomplished great things through their own hard work and mental faculties. Also, they shared the same sense of humor; a quality that Grant seemed to cherish in his later years.

                 In the end, the legendary friendship culminated with the publishing of Grant’s memoirs. And, Twain could not be any happier with the results. Twain even compared Grant’s memoirs to Julius Caesar’s war commentaries, stating,

“I was able to say in all sincerity that the same high merits distinguished both books—clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike… General Grant was just such a man, just such a human being, and just such an author… The fact remains and cannot be dislodged that General Grant’s book is a great unique, and unapproachable, literary masterpiece. I placed the two books side by side upon the same high level. ”[22]

Louie Gallo

[1] William McFeely, Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981), 482-3.

[2] McFeely, Grant, 488-9.

[3] Robert P. Browning, et al., Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, vol. 3: 1883-1891 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1979), 10n.

[4] Harriet Smith, ed., Autobiography of Mark Twain, The Complete and Authoritative Edition, vol. 1 (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010), 71.

[5] Mark Perry, Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America (New York: Random House, 2004), xxvii, xxviii.

[6] Smith, Twain, 72.

[7] Charles Flood, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year (Philadelphia: DeCapo Press, 2011), 13.

[8] H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Random House, 2012), 620-1.

[9] Smith, Twain, 77.

[10] Flood, Grant’s Final Victory, 75.

[11] McFeely, ed., Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs & Selected Letters: Library of America #50, (New York: Library of America, 1990), Note on the Texts; 1884.

[12] Smith, Twain, 77.

[13] Smith, Twain, 78-80.

[14] John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 25: 1884 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 237.

[15] Smith, Twain, 80.

[16] Smith, Twain,81, 84.

[17] McFeely, Grant Memoirs, Note on the Texts; 1884.—what page number?

[18] Smith , Twain, 95.

[19] Browning, et al., Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, 168.

[20] McFeely, Grant Memoirs, Note on the Texts; 1884.

[21] Twain was known for his laid-back demeanor and wit, while Grant was considered more reserved and stern. According to Twain, Grant was a “vivacious and interesting talker when none were present but familiar friends, it was his habit to keep his jaws locked when strangers were about.” Smith, Twain, vol. 2, 71-72.

[22] P.J. Kearns, The Fellers Called Him Bill, Book III: The Final Desperate Fighting & The Aftermath of War (Bloomington: Xlibris, LLC, 2012), 289.


Single Post Navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: