RUINED AND SADDLED WITH DEBT, Grant was, in some respects, back where he had started when he was working at the leather shop in Galena. As always in his extraordinary life, however, a chance to rise was once again about to present itself. Once again he would need to go through pain and suffering; once again he would overcome them to win glory. This time the weapon would be the pen, not the sword.
In the aftermath of the failure of Grant & Ward, Grant had rather reluctantly agreed to write an account of Shiloh for Century Magazine, for a fee of five hundred dollars; more articles were called for, and it gradually dawned on the editor of the Century that a book might eventually come of all this. It also dawned on a former Confederate soldier, Samuel Clemens (more famous under his writing name of Mark Twain), that such a book would sell. Clemens was a publisher as well as a humorist and writer, and owned his own publishing house, Charles L. Webster & Co., having discovered that he could make more money by selling his books door-to-door than through conventional publishers and booksellers, who even then were thought to be behind the times when it came to marketing their product. Clemens knew the general slightly and dropped in to see him at East Sixty-sixth Street—Clemens was a celebrity, the late-nineteenth-century equivalent of a major talk-show host, as well as a famous writer, and he had the rare gift of being able to make Grant smile, so no doubt he was welcome. He was also a man with a vision, and proposed to secure for Grant at least $25,000 for his war memoirs, against very favorable royalty terms that would make him, once again, a rich man. Grant typically countered with the loyalty that he owed to the Century people, but Clemens promised him they would never match his offer or come up with anything like it, and he was proved right. The head of the Century—typically of a publisher—declared rather stuffily that he would never guarantee the sale of 25,000 copies of any book ever written, and Clemens, therefore, got Grant’s memoirs, thus making Grant the first in a long line of presidents who would secure their financial future with a book deal, including Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bill Clinton.
Unlike most of them, however, Grant aimed to write his book himself, without the help of a “ghostwriter.” Every word would be his. Clemens was shrewd enough to know that Grant’s prose was one of his greatest strengths. His letters and dispatches, however hastily written, were always models of brevity, clarity, and simplicity—he had only to keep at it steadily to produce a major bestseller.1
But there was one problem. Grant had been suffering for some time from a pain in the throat, accompanied by difficulty in swallowing. He had experienced it shortly after the collapse of Grant & Ward, when his mind had been on other things—disgrace and ruin—and had paid, at first, little attention to it. It was diagnosed as a cold, but the pain persisted long after the cold should have gone away, and as throat specialists were called in, the diagnosis became clearer and more dire—Grant was suffering from cancer of the throat, an incurable disease in the age before radiation and chemotherapy, in effect a death sentence, and a slow and painful death at that.
Grant took the news stoically, but he was determined to finish his book before he died. The writing was laborious, slow work, and became daily more difficult as Grant’s cancer spread, rendering it impossible for him to swallow and eventually depriving him of his voice. Still he labored on, day after day, convinced by now that it was the only way in which his debts could be settled and Julia and his family provided for.
What fate had in store for Grant was a race against time—a race against death, really—and the struggle wiped away every trace of the man who had twice been president and tried so hard to get a third term without actually asking for it. That Grant, overweight, puffy-faced, overdressed in clothes that didn’t suit him, the Grant who had yearned to be a Wall Street tycoon or a Mexican railways baron, and who had traveled around the world accepting as his due the homage of huge crowds of ordinary people and the company of crowned heads, was now burned away day by day, bit by bit, by pain, suffering, and remorselessly hard work under overwhelming pressure. Photographs taken of Grant in his illness show the flesh pared away, the strong bones reappearing in his face, the eyes once again melancholy but focused with disconcerting concentration on the object of his attention, as they had once been in battle. In these photographs Grant, the heroic young officer of the Mexican War; Grant, the fledgling colonel of the Illinois Volunteers who surrounded Buckner at Fort Donelson; Grant, the victor of Shiloh, Vicksburg, and the long, bloody struggle against Lee in 1864 and 1865, reappears as if the other Grant had never existed. He was, in fact, at war again, not only in his head, as day by day he reconstructed with phenomenal exactitude and in succinct lapidary prose the history of his wars and his battles, but also in his heart, as he took the measure of the cancer that was killing him; figured out how much pain he could bear and how much morphine he could afford to take before it clouded his mind and stopped his writing; drew on his own strength, courage, and stubborn determination to fight his last battle, in which the only victory would be to complete his book before death took him.
Grant began his task late in 1884 and finished it in July 1885—an amazing and Herculean labor. At first he dictated, but then, as his ability to speak deteriorated, he took to writing on lined yellow legal pads with a pencil, in his clear, firm script. He did not have an army of researchers and draft writers, like Winston Churchill for instance. He sat on his porch, if the weather allowed it, and wrote away industriously, often watched by sightseers who had come to see the great man die. The Grants had been obliged to sell their seaside cottage in New Jersey, and took a small house at Mount McGregor, near Saratoga Springs, New York. There Grant can be seen, in numerous photographs, dressed in a dark, frock-coated suit with silk lapels, a black silk top hat on his head and a white napkin or towel wrapped around his throat, resolutely writing.
He knew he was dying, and very shortly the country knew it, too. Visitors came to pay their last respects, crowds of tourists came up from Saratoga Springs to stand and gawk at Grant; he was, as was so often the case in his life, on public display. In an age when deathbed scenes were popular and apt to be protracted, and when people died at home rather than in a hospital, Grant’s was perhaps the biggest and longest deathbed scene of all, and through it he kept working, surrounded by his family, and receiving occasional visitors.
It was a national drama of unprecedented proportions, and as his health declined and pain began to overwhelm his defenses, his enemies and his detractors fell away, one by one. Those who had thought he was wasteful of his men’s lives in the war, those who had opposed his presidency, those who had lost their life’s savings in the crash and depression that darkened his second term in office, or had unwisely invested their money in Grant & Ward because of his name, came to forgive him—dying made him again what he had once been, a national hero.
He finished the last chapter only a week or so before his death and was still struggling with questions about the maps and the proofs when death was almost ready to take him. On his own terms, and in his own way, he had fought death and won.
Now that it was too late, final honors poured in—Congress passed a bill restoring him to his rank in the army (he had had to resign in order to run for president); encomiums filled the newspapers; people of every rank, from all over the world, sent letters and cards; but Grant was past all that. He had finished his book, and now he was ready, perhaps even impatient, to die.
He would never know it, of course, but the book would indeed save the Grants—it would earn more than $450,000 in royalties, an immense sum for the day, but one that would have to be multiplied by twenty or more to give an idea of it in comparable modern terms. Sold door to door in several different editions, it became the biggest bestseller in American history, excluding the Bible.
All over the United States in the late nineteenth century, in the simplest of homes and farmhouses, one could always count on finding two books, the Bible and Grant’s Memoirs, side by side, on a shelf or on the mantelpiece, its penultimate words, “Let us have peace,” representing, so very clearly, the deepest feelings of America’s most successful general.