Mr. Grant, Meet Mr. Twain

Our local library was having a book sale of some of its presumably surplus books, and for a song I picked up Mark Perry’s Grant and Twain, a dual biography of the title characters. While containing enough background to justify the increasingly popular dual biography classification, essentially the book focused on the period in which these two giants of nineteenth century America (though Twain lived until 1910) found their lives intersecting in the interest of literature and history. Perry centers his story on Twain’s tenacious efforts to get a very reluctant Grant to write his memoirs and the near herculean effort required of the dying general and president to do so. While Twain clearly wanted to be the publisher himself—his concern for business matters never being far out of mind—he admired Grant and genuinely felt that Grant’s narrative of the War, particularly given his role as the North’s overall military commander, would not only be handsomely profitable but historically necessary. After Grant and his son were led into desperate financial straits by a smooth-talking business partner with a good eye for bad investments around 1883, Grant—who had nobly but unwisely given up his military retirement when he became president—was desperate to find a means to support his family and to pay his mounting debts. He thus came to see, with Twain’s and others’ urgings, the as yet unwritten memoirs as a means to his financial salvation. In the mean time, the devoted cigar-smoker was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer of the mouth, with the result that his writing became a painful race against death, which came in 1885. But as Lincoln had said over two decades earlier about this almost preternaturally calm and brave man, “he fights.” (Commander-in-Chief Lincoln had finally found his general, after sputtering attempts with three previous ones, including the vain, contumacious, and ultimately craven George McClellan, to whom Lincoln had tartly said that if the General wasn’t planning to use his army, then he, Lincoln, would like to borrow it.)

Grant, now slowly and painfully dying of cancer, contrived to live up to Lincoln’s appreciative “he fights.” With help from his son and some former military subordinates (one or two of whom had their own possibly competing memoirs), he wrote. His capable doctors managed to relieve his pain with laudanum applied to his tongue. He also dictated, but that became difficult, as did swallowing. Indeed, his doctors eventually attributed his actual death to starvation. He finished the second volume—his final campaign—a few weeks before his death.

I remember reading a single volume American Library version of his memoirs some twenty years ago and being surprised at its high literary quality. Twain noted this as well. But Perry’s dual biography fleshed out Grant’s war narrative handsomely, yielding an impression of a man of longstanding modest and calm demeanor in the face of both catastrophic military consequences and approaching and painful death. His lifelong love for his wife Julia (perfectly paralleled by Twain’s love for his wife Livy), as well as his concern for his personal integrity, particularly in terms of paying his debts and having it known that the prose was his alone, are deeply endearing qualities matched by his quiet courage and sheer doggedness. Though Grant’s less-than-successful presidency, ridiculed by the refined Henry Adams, was marked by scandal (though not his own) and has been seen by historians in stark and invidious contrast to his successful prosecution of the War, it is within bounds to speculate that the War would very likely have been further drawn out without him, and possibly might have turned out differently. Owing to his financial crisis, the importuning of Twain and others, his own integrity, his persistent anxiety for his family’s welfare, and his implacable tenacity allowing him to hold off death just long enough, he was able to leave us a historically necessary masterpiece in the genre of military memoirs.

John Rachal

August 17, 2012

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