grant's last full measure -- 10/27/17

Today's selection -- from Grant by Ron Chernow. The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are considered a masterpiece of American literature, and Grant surprised observers with the clarity, directness and power of his prose. Grant had been insistent that he would never write his memoirs, but presidents in that era did not receive pensions -- so after suffering a financial catastrophe and contracting terminal cancer, he agreed, in order to provide for his beloved wife, Julia, after his death. Destitute and ailing, he gave his all to the task, writing 336,000 words in a year. Mark Twain's publishing house won the rights to Grant's memoirs, which sold a "record breaking 300,000 copies in two-volume sets." Grant finished the manuscript one week before his death:

"Terrified that if he died he would leave Julia [his wife] destitute, Grant agreed to pen his memoirs and relive his glory days of battle. As seen in his wartime orders, he had patented a lean, supple writing style, and a crisp narrative now flowed in polished sentences, honed by the habits of a lifetime.

Ulysses S. Grant, at a cottage in Mt. McGregor, New York, 1885,
working on his memoirs.

"Words poured from this supposedly taciturn man, showing how much thought and pent-up feeling lay beneath his tightly buttoned facade. He wrote in an overstuffed leather arm­chair, his outstretched legs swaddled by blankets, resting on a facing chair. He wore a wool cap over thick brown hair now streaked with gray, a shawl draped over his shoulders, and a muffler around his neck concealing a tumor the size of a baseball.

"Seldom, if ever, has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances. Whenever he swallowed anything, Grant was stricken with pain and had to resort to opiates that clouded his brain. As a result, he endured ex­tended periods of thirst and hunger as he labored over his manuscript. The tor­ment of the inflamed throat never ceased. When the pain grew too great, his black valet, Harrison Terrell, sprayed his throat with 'cocaine water,' temporar­ily numbing the area, or applied hot compresses to his head. Despite his fear of morphine addiction, Grant could not dispense entirely with such powerful med­ication. 'I suffer pain all the time, except when asleep,' he told his doctor. Al­though bolstered by analgesics, Grant experienced only partial relief, informing a reporter that 'when the suffering was so intense ... he only wished for the one great relief to all human pain.'

"Summoning his last reserves of strength, through a stupendous act of will­power, Grant toiled four to six hours a day, adding more time on sleepless nights. For family and friends his obsessive labor was wondrous to behold: the soldier so famously reticent that someone quipped he 'could be silent in several languages' pumped out 336,000 words of superb prose in a year.

"By May 1885, just two months before his death, Grant was forced to dictate, and, when his voice failed, he scribbled messages on thin strips of paper. Always cool in a crisis, Grant ex­hibited the prodigious stamina and granite resolve of his wartime effort.

"Nobody was more thunderstruck than Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who had recently formed a publishing house with his nephew-in-law Charles Webster. To snare Grant's memoirs, sure to be a literary sensation, Twain boosted the royalty promised by the Century Magazine's publishers and won the rights. Twain had never seen a writer with Grant's gritty determination.

"When this man 'under sentence of death with that cancer' produced an astonishing ten thousand words in one day, Twain exclaimed, 'It kills me these days to write half of that.' He was agog when Grant dictated at one sitting a nine-thousand-word portrait of Lee's surrender at Appomattox 'never pausing, never hesitating for a word, never repeating -- and in the written-out copy he made hardly a correction.' Twain, who considered the final product a masterwork, scoffed at scuttlebutt he had ghostwritten it. 'There is no higher literature than these modern, simple Mem­oirs,' he insisted. 'Their style is flawless ... no man can improve upon it.'"



Ron Chernow




Penguin Press


Copyright 2017 by Ron Chernow


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