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U.s. Grant: Man Of Letters

July 2024
9min read

In the spring of 1885, when he was less than three months away from death by cancer, General Ulysses S. Grant had a spirited exchange of letters with Adam Badeau, who was supposed to be helping him write his memoirs.

Badeau had been Grant’s military secretary during the final year of the Civil War, and some time after the war he had written a three-volume Military History of Ulysses S. Grant . This has been a standard reference work ever since, but it had not been a great commercial success and now it occurred to Badeau that it would sink into the shadows forever, once Grant’s memoirs came out. Besides, to work on another man’s manuscript struck Badeau as sheer drudgery, he saw his own name vanishing from sight under the great weight of Grant’s name, and anyway he wanted to write a novel; so on May 2 he wrote to Grant demanding more money. Specifically, he wanted $1,000 a month, payable in advance, plus ten per cent of the entire profits from the memoirs.

Grant was combating poverty as well as cancer. The failure of the brokerage house of Grant & Ward had left him flat broke just at the moment he learned that the irritating sore in his throat that had bothered him so long was an inoperable cancer, and his one purpose now was to get royalties that would relieve his family from want. On May 5 he rejected Badeau’s claim in the most plain-spoken terms—and in the course of writing the letter unwittingly demonstrated that by the oddest turn of fate he had actually become what Badeau supposed himself to be: a man of letters.

Grant thought that Badeau was asking for altogether too much money, and said so flatly. What really irritated him, however, was Badeau’s implication that Grant could not finish his book without Badeau’s help. Grant’s pride as a craftsman had been offended. He thought that his own literary style was good—a belief that was entirely justified—and in any case if a book came out with his name on it, it was going to be his book and nobody else’s; he told Badeau that his conscience would not let him present a book as his work if he had not actually written it. His agonizing malady was now entering its terminal stage, he needed an amanuensis to help him organize some of the material, and he understood that he might die before the work was finished, in which case someone would have to arrange the final sections to make a coherent conclusion—but a ghost writer he did not want at all.

This is a little unexpected. Grant was a soldier; at one degree removed, he was a politician; and now he was writing a book, his only aim being to make money for his family. It should have been an open-and-shut case. If a hack could finish the job for him, well and good. It was clear by now that the book was going to sell very well indeed, and the money would come rolling in once the job was done and the door-to-door salesmen got busy. Why endure the work of composition—accompanied, as it must be in Grant’s case, by the fearful pain of death-in-the-throat—when a journeyman like Badeau could do the work? Why, if money was all that mattered?

Obviously, money was not all that mattered. Grant wanted something more. He could no more take credit for a book he had not really written than he could have confessed that his Vicksburg campaign had been devised and executed by some subordinate. He had the pride of authorship. Badeau’s financial terms were high, but by this time it was clear that they could be met without hardship. The real trouble was that Grant had become a writing man, and he was driven by the writing man’s compulsions.

In his letter, Badeau had been fairly blunt. He complained that the work he was supposed to do for Grant would be “the merest literary drudgery,” and went on:

In the nature of things, I can have no reputation and consideration from my connection with the book. I must efface myself, and yet work intensely hard without increased pay or any at all until a year and a half from the beginning of my labors. But your book has assumed an importance which neither you nor I anticipated last summer. It is to have a circulation of hundreds of thousands, and the larger its circulation the greater its importance—the more completely it will supplant and stamp out mine. The better I help you to make it, the more effectually I destroy what I have spent my life in building up—my reputation as your historian. And this nobody but me can do. No literary man has the military knowledge; no military man has the literary experiences; no literary or military man living, not one of your old Staff even, has one tithe of my knowledge and experience on this subject, the result of twenty years’ study and devotion…. No one but myself can destroy my own book. If I don’t help you it will retain its place, for you have neither the physical strength nor the habits of mind yourself to make the researches to verify or correct your own memory. If you can not finish the work, nobody can do it fitly but me.

Badeau had made a small mistake. He was writing to U. S. Grant, who was not used to being pushed around.

Grant replied: “I have concluded that you and I must give up all association so far as the preparation of any literary work goes which is to bear my signature. In all other respects I hope our relations may continue as they have always been, pleasant and friendly.” He went on to say that the manuscript was by now much nearer completion than Badeau supposed, and he pointed out that the work required of the amanuensis would not be too extensive: “The work which I wanted you to do I did not think would take over two months of your time, working on an average of four hours a day, six days in the week. It would not take longer if done by an expeditious writer and as I want it done, and I thought and you thought the compensation large at the time.” (Compensation: $5,000 out of the first $20,000 in royalties, and $5,000 out of the next $10,000.)

Then Grant addressed himself to what seemed to be Badeau’s chief complaint: that Grant’s memoirs, once on sale, would bury Badeau’s own work and sink Badeau’s name in obscurity:

Allow me to say that this is all bosh, and evidently the work of a distempered mind that has been growing moody by too much reflection upon these matters. The fact is, if my book affects yours in any way it will be to call attention to it. You say that “I am a man of affairs, etc., and can tell a simple story,” etc. You imply that a literary man must supply some deficiencies, and that you are the only man who can do it. If this is the case … I do not want a book bearing my name to go before the world which I did not write to such an extent as to be fully entitled to the credit of authorship. I do not want a secret between me and someone else which would destroy my honor if it were divulged. I cannot think of myself as depending upon any person to supply a capacity which I am lacking. I may fail, but I will not put myself in such a position.

You say, “no one but myself can destroy my own book. If I don’t help you it will retain its place, for you have neither the physical strength,” etc. In answer to this I have to say that for the last twenty-four years I have been very much employed in writing. As a soldier I wrote my own orders, plans of battle, instructions and reports. They were not edited, nor was assistance rendered. As president, I wrote every official document, I believe, usual for presidents to write, bearing my name. All these have been published and widely circulated. The public has become accustomed to my style of writing. They know that it is not even an attempt to imitate either a literary or classical style; that it is just what it is and nothing else. If I succeed in telling my story so that others can see as I do what I attempt to show, I will be satisfied. The reader must also be satisfied, for he knows from the beginning just what to expect.

The last two sentences of this paragraph add up to excellent advice for any budding writer. Grant capped them with a final declaration: “It would be a degradation for me to accept honors and profit from the work of another man while declaring to the public that it was the product of my own brain and hand.”

In the upshot, Grant finished the job as he had said he would, and an examination of his original manuscript in the Library of Congress is instructive. In the final weeks, when he was almost distracted by unending pain, Grant’s writing becomes a scrawl, disconnected episodes and comments are put down as they entered the man’s head, and there is obvious reliance on an editor who can fit the separate pieces into their proper place and arrange the last chapter into a coherent tale. Yet with all of this it is fair to say that the manuscript required from the editor no more work than might be given to the manuscript of any professional writer who had been compelled by approaching death to leave his final pages in a slightly disorganized state. It might be added that Grant died just two days after he had written his final words.

The great bulk of the manuscript looks like a professional’s work; which is to say that it contains the interlineations, the lines drawn through words and phrases, which show an unremitting effort to go over what has been written and find just the right way to say what the writer wanted said. Whether he did it well or poorly, Grant was behaving like a craftsman.

… One more little touch. A few pages from the end, when the shadows were closing in fast, there is a page containing no writing at all—just doodles, a sketch of a farmhouse, a series of crosshatched squares and triangles: precisely the sort of byplay a writer indulges in when the next paragraph will not come out and the subconscious mind has to be given a chance to bring something to the surface. Grant was doodling, remember, at a time when simply to stay alive was torment and when the available time was short, but the job he was doing was of a kind that cannot always be hurried. Any writer will recognize the situation he was in.

If Grant thus finally became a literary man, the important question of course is: how good a literary man was he?

The answer is that he was surprisingly good. His Personal Memoirs stays alive and is read today, not simply because it recounts the wartime experiences of a famous soldier but primarily because it is a first-rate book—well written, with a literary quality that keeps it fresh. Mark Twain’s famous verdict—that it is “a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece”—is probably a little excessive, and yet the book has a quality that lifts it far above the other soldier-memoirs of its time and place. The English critic Matthew Arnold, no great admirer of Grant or of Americans generally, found Grant’s literary style “straightforward, nervous, firm, possessing in general the high merit of saying clearly, in the fewest possible words, what had to be said, and saying it, frequently, with shrewd and unexpected turns of expression.”

Grant was one of the most articulate of American soldiers. The prose style in which he took such pride is marked above all by clarity of expression. There is never any doubt about what Grant means, and this characteristic is visible in his wartime correspondence. His letters and orders are never foggy, and some of the most memorable sentences of the whole Civil War come straight from Grant’s pen.

There is, for instance, his note to General Buckner: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” And to Meade, outlining the plan for the 1864 campaign: “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Not to mention the note to Halleck, after Spotsylvania: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” In this one, it is interesting to notice that Grant originally wrote “if it takes me all summer” and then went back and crossed out the word “me”; he was the stylist even then, knocking out one word in order to make a sentence more effective.

In his private correspondence, Grant was careless. Spelling was a minor bother to him—not because he did not know how to spell, but apparently because he just didn’t care much about it. It is common to find him spelling a word one way in one sentence and another way in the next one. He often wrote to his political sponsor, Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois, and he was quite capable of spelling Washburne’s name both with and without the final e in the same letter. Once during the war he wrote to his twelve-year-old son Fred, from whom he had just had a letter, advising the young man to keep a dictionary with him when he wrote letters so that he could check his spelling; but like many another father, Grant preached what he did not himself practice. One of his aides, Horace Porter, wrote that Grant never had a dictionary in his tent, never bothered to write a word out on a scrap of paper to see if he had it right, and altogether spelled “with a heroic audacity.”

But that was for private letters. Otherwise Grant used care, and long before he ever thought of writing his memoirs he took a modest pride in his writing style. His chief of staff, John A. Rawlins, in the winter of 1864 complained that to get Grant’s report of the battle of Chattanooga into final shape “is a very unpleasant and I may say thankless undertaking, for the General is very tenacious of the claim that he writes his own reports and it is necessary for us to follow the text as nearly as possible.” Inasmuch as Rawlins’ own literary style was atrocious, one can only add that General Grant was well advised to impose this rule.

All in all, Grant emerges as a man of letters of real distinction. Go back, again, to his performance in the Memoirs . He wrote this book against pain and death, and he stuck to it as long as he could hold a pencil—not because someone else could not finish the thing for him, thereby assuring his family a proper estate, but simply because as a writing man he wanted the book done his way. No professional author could have written a sturdier declaration of dedication to his craft: “I do not want a book bearing my name to go before the world which I did not write to such an extent as to be fully entitled to the credit of authorship.”


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