Why Ulysses S. Grant is America’s Julius Caesar

From a bookseller perspective, I see General Grant as the worthy successor of Julius Caesar. Which is to say—from the perspective of their contributions to literature. Caesar and Grant were both amazing military leaders whose writings are among the most beautiful and stylistically flawless of their genres. Each man’s work is a giant in its historical context. Both men came to an early end, yet both their words and deeds keep them living.

 

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.

Every beginning Latin student knows Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, about his conquest of Gaul in the 50s BCE. It is generally the first major text a Latin student tackles because of its clear and elegant style. But more than that, Caesar set the standard for later military texts with his focus on efficient description of facts without the intrusion of bias (where it could be avoided).

 

A 1677 edition of Julius Caesar’s Gallic War

I think we all know what happened to Caesar: at the height of his power the infamous Brutus assassinated him. General Grant’s story is actually quite different from Caesar’s in this respect. Yet he too wrote the best military memoir of his age.

 

There’s a reason we often refer to Ulysses S. Grant as General Grant, and not President Grant. Grant was President of the United States for two terms, but his reputation as President has suffered greatly from the rampant corruption in his cabinet. However, his reputation as the general who won the Civil War is sterling—as it ought to be. For example, while Grant was known to be a hard drinker, it is said that when this was brought up to Lincoln as a possible issue, Lincoln replied,

You tell me what brand of whiskey he drinks, and I will order every one of my generals in the field a barrel of it.

 

After the war and his presidency, Grant settled down to a quiet private life. Century Magazine’s editors approached him about writing an article on the war. Grant turned them down. He believed his aide Adam Badeau had already written sufficiently on the subject. Even at Mark Twain’s nudging, Grant refused to write any memoirs.

 

What changed Grant’s mind? Scandal and bankruptcy.

 

Grant invested in a company that was owned by his son and a partner, Ferdinand Ward. They had started a Wall Street investment house, which began with great success only to collapse into financial fraud. Turns out the trusted Ward had taken advantage of him.

 

To cut to the chase: Grant lost everything. He began eyeing the idea of his memoirs. Then, a pain in his throat. It was momentary, but searing. After a few weeks of this inconsistent pain, a doctor was called. Grant was bankrupt and terminally ill with throat cancer.

 

Century Magazine approached him again. This time, he was frank about his monetary problems, and the editors were incredibly generous in response. This was a smart move on their part; his articles made the magazine series one of the most popular of all time.

 

Grant:

Do you really think anyone would be interested in a book by me?

Century editor:

General, do you not think the public would read with avidity Napoleon’s personal account of his battles?

 

Enter Mark Twain, hitherto relegated to the shadows. Twain was a great admirer of Grant. He also happened to own a publishing company with his niece’s husband, Charles Webster. Twain convinced Grant that if he would write his memoirs, Twain would grant him an extraordinary percentage of royalties to support Grant’s family after his death.

 

Grant wrote his memoirs, day by day, while he died of a particularly painful form of cancer. It appeared that the routine and the new purpose gave Grant a small extension of life, even while he became weaker and weaker.

 

On July 19th, 1885, Grant finished the book. On July 23rd, he died.

The cloth-bound issue of Grant’s Memoirs, first edition

There are many nuances to this story I’ve skimmed over here (please see my source, Grant and Twain by Mark Perry, for more). But even from the bare outlines it is obvious what an enormous feat Grant’s memoirs were. To top it all off, the finished product turned out to be one of the best memoirs ever written—military or otherwise. Like Caesar, his style is elegant, yet efficient. Straightforward, expert, and beautiful.

 

Personally, I’m proud that an American has written a work that compares with the great literature of antiquity. America is such a young country, yet a few Americans have made major marks in literature. Whitman and Hemingway also come to mind. Who else do you think has made a major impact on literature, and why? (Your choices don’t have to be American!)

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    This might seem an odd choice, but I am going to go with E. B. White. Not only did he write two of the best loved classic children stories, he also greatly expanded The Elements of Style. E. B. White studied under William Strunk, Jr. and later was asked to expand and revise his book. The Elements of Style has had a big influence on many writers of today.

    1. E.B. White is definitely underappreciated these days. So is Mencken.

  2. Michael Tait says:

    I think you’re selling your country short (I’m Scottish, btw) when you say you’ve not made an impact. What about Herman Melville? Mr Twain himself? Or more contemporary authors like Salinger or Steinbeck? Steinbeck is part of our high-school curriculum where I live, for example.

    1. I don’t deny the impact of those authors. I think more that I was mulling the concept over from the perspective I have as someone with a Classics degree. I am sort of in awe of the ancients.

      1. Michael Tait says:

        Ah! Fair enough. There’s a dearth of classics degrees in my household, I must confess!

  3. R Towns Blethrow says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading from the Library of America series:

    Ulysses S. Grant
    Memoirs and Selected Letters

    see: http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=46

    now my selection: Miguel de Cervantes
    his volume: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote De la Mancha

    A copious number of authors were influenced by Cervantes’ style
    and bold wit. From Francis Beaumont in America to Henry Fielding
    who included a reference in his title page of the volume,
    “Joseph Andrews.” Even contemporary music has been influenced
    e.g. Coldplay’s 2010 issue “Don Quixote (Spanish Rain).” Many
    artists have lifted their palette to create magnificent works based on
    Cervantes’ themes.

    1. Cervantes is a great choice! He came to mind immediately once I wrote the sentence about the choice not needing to be American.

  4. jb says:

    i think many people have been influenced by albert camus without realizing it. at least anyone who dares imagine sisyphus as happy.

  5. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who had been doing a little research on this. And he in fact bought me dinner simply because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this subject here on your website.

    1. Well, then, you’re welcome! But your comment itself balances the debt: I’m pleased to know that this post served exactly the purpose I hoped it would–to introduce people to great books like this.

  6. Craig Johnson says:

    I know I replying to an old post. You’ll have to forgive my tardiness due to the fact that I just discovered your blog. I feel compelled to pay you repay you an indebtedness; reading your comments enticed me to read Grant’s memoirs and for that I owe you thanks. I’m not sure why I hadn’t made the effort to read them in the past, especially considering that I read a great deal of historical non-fiction and that I live within walking distance of Hardscrabble and White Haven in St. Louis. Perhaps I was inclined to disregard Grant’s writings, given his often maligned reputation and the onerous circumstances under which he wrote his final words. Or it could be that I languorously prefer the simplicity of reading the condensed, pre-chewed thoughts of popular historians to the unedited thoughts of the historical figures themselves. Regardless, I am very glad that I took the time to read Grant’s memoirs. I found the book to be, at times, compelling, insightful, funny, and touching. It filled in some previously unknown gaps in my knowledge of the civil war and it gave me a very clear look at this man’s ideas about military strategy and tactics. I’m sorry it took me this long to get around to reading Grant’s book but I’m glad that I finally did.

    1. Craig, your comment pleased me greatly! So glad to hear that you gave the Memoirs a chance and that they rewarded you.

  7. Craig Johnson says:

    Due to my myopic, modernist, American-centric view of literature, the first author I think of in terms of influence is always Mark Twain. There were certainly authors before Twain who wrote about American characters in American stories (Cooper, Irving) and authors who also wrote in a new American style (Poe, Mehlville, Hawthorne). However, Twain was the first popular author who made his characters actually look and sound like Americans, modern Americans, non-colonial Americans. He let people know that a hick from Missouri could have awareness and insight, not only to the world around him, but also to the world at large. In my simple way of looking at things, a modern American author saying he or she isn’t influenced by Twain would be like a rock guitarist saying they aren’t influenced by Chuck Berry. It’s not possible, because he didn’t just open the door, he was the one who found the door.

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