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July 25, 2013

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSONS: Writing the ‘Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant’

When the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and 18th president of the United States, was posthumously published in 1885 it was a literary tour de force. “The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” was also an instant best-seller and even today is considered among the best autobiographies ever written.

 And it was written out of necessity. When Grant left the White House in 1877, he had refused numerous offers to publish his memoirs.

Unfortunately, while Grant was militarily brilliant, financially he was clueless, and he was duped into investing his life’s savings in a brokerage firm run by two scam artists, Ferdinand Ward and James Fish, which eventually went bust, leaving Grant and his family penniless.

Thus, writing his memoirs was the only way to provide for his family’s security. When the popular Century magazine asked him to contribute some articles to a series on the Civil War and then asked him to turn those articles into a book on his life, Grant agreed.

Fortunately, before Grant signed the book contract with Century, his good friend, the famous author Mark Twain, reviewed Century’s offer and was aghast. Century was offering only 10 cents for every book sold and wanted to deduct from Grant’s royalty payments certain “expenses,” including Grant’s research assistants and clerk.

Through his own publishing house, Webster and Company (which recently had published a book of Twain’s that would earn a fair amount of fame, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), Twain offered Grant a $10,000 advance — unheard of at the time — and 70 percent of the net profits.

It was an overly generous offer, motivated partly by Twain’s desire to spare his friend a poverty-stricken old age, but also by Twain’s expectation that the book would be a huge success.

Certainly every member of the Union Army would want a copy, but so would the general public because, although today many historians treat Grant’s presidency with disdain, when he left office he was hugely popular.

Twain’s offer was also, it would turn out, a gamble because just as Grant began writing his memoirs he was diagnosed with incurable throat cancer (Grant smoked two dozen cigars a day), which meant he might die before finishing the book. The cancer also made writing extremely painful, yet Grant refused to yield, working every day and writing every word of the two-volume, 1,215-page book.

That meant his family was financially secure. His wife, Julia, received $450,000 in royalties (about $10 million today) and lived out her life in comfort. General Ulysses S. Grant, having fought, and won, his last earthly battle, finally surrendered to death, this week (July 23) in 1885 — just three days after finishing the book.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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