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