Today’s recommended reading is another great history lesson by Alexander Green, at Spiritual Wealth. It is a companion piece to his Robert E. Lee essay of last year, and concerns Lee’s great rival, Ullysses S. Grant. While Grant won the war that would assure that the United States would remain united, he also made a significant contribution to the American literary tradition.
After the war, Grant served two terms as President. Yet, in a world where speechmaking was popular entertainment and politicians routinely spoke for hours, Grant was largely silent. His Presidency was less than inspiring, as well. The government was saddled with an enormous war debt. Huge parts of the country remained broken, starving and mired in catastrophic defeat. The South’s economy was virtually destroyed. And Grant had the misfortune of presiding over America’s first economic depression, including the Panic of 1873.
However, he was trusted in the South as well as the North. That made him the perfect figure to reunify the nation. As President, he also signed legislation that created the national park system, declared that the Indians required as much protection from the whites as the whites did from the Indians, and avoided foreign wars and entanglements. In short, Grant affirmed the integrity of American institutions and demonstrated decency, good intentions and common sense.
Unfortunately, he had little understanding of money and no business sense whatsoever. In 1880, Ferdinand Ward, a 28-year-old con man – and business associate of Grant’s son Buck – invited the former President to become a partner in his Wall Street brokerage house. Grant – a trusting man who seldom bothered to read documents before signing them – agreed.
Before long Ward reported stupendous profits and doled out generous amounts of cash to partners. Grant believed he was rich. But Ward was running a multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme and in 1884 it blew up, devastating investors and bankrupting Grant and his family. It was the most colossal swindle of the age.
In 1877 retiring Presidents did not have the benefits they do today – no generous pension, no office and staff at government expense, no lucrative speaking engagements. The former President – who had blundered in every business opportunity – had nothing to fall back on.
Worse, he had recently been diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer, an incurable disease before the advent of radiation and chemotherapy. Grant knew he was beginning a slow and painful death, one that would leave his wife Julia not just penniless but deeply in debt.
Fortunately, his friend Mark Twain, the second most famous American of the day, offered to publish Grant’s memoirs with a generous royalty agreement. Grant accepted, though he realized his poor health meant he had only a few months to complete the task.
Under overwhelming pressure, he wrote an astonishing 10 thousand words a day. First he dictated them, but as he lost his ability to speak, he wrote them down by hand on a yellow legal pad. The writing was slow, laborious work. Yet he carefully figured out how much pain he could endure and how much morphine he could take before it clouded his mind and stopped his pen. Grant completed the massive work in a matter of months, finishing the last chapter three days before he died. On his deathbed, he was still struggling with the maps and proofs.
Grant did not have researchers, assistants or draft writers. Yet his prose is clear and direct and demonstrates an amazing memory. The words that make up the two-volume work are his own. And they are exceptional.
Twain was astounded when he read the manuscript, claiming that there was not one literary man in a hundred who could furnish copy as clean as Grant’s. He had offered to publish the memoirs because he assumed that the book would be a financial success. Now he saw its remarkable literary quality. “There is no higher literature than these modern, simple Memoirs,” he said. “Their style is flawless… no man can improve upon it.” Coming from the single greatest figure in American letters, this was high praise indeed.
The book was not just an immediate sensation. It was the biggest bestseller in American history. Biographer Michael Korda notes that in the late 1800s, you could count on finding two books in every American home, the Bible and Grant’s Memoirs.
If you’d like to finish reading the article, and for more of Alexander Green’s great writing, check out Spiritual Wealth.