Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain and Even a Little About the Jews

Who knew that Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant were buddies?  And that Mark Twain’s publishing company put out Grant’s impressive two volume autobiography?  Certainly not me.

Over the past few days, I read Mark Perry’s “Grant and Twain”, published in 2004 by Random House.  An interesting study of the two men and their relationship with each other, and with other military and literary figures of their day.  Grant was older than Twain – he was born in 1822, Twain in 1835.  And Grant died much sooner – in 1885, Twain in 1910.  And they apparently didn’t know each other until after the end of Grant’s presidency (he left office in 1877) and after Grant hit serious financial problems after the bankruptcy of Grant & Ward, an investment firm started by his son and partner Ferdinand Ward, in which Grant had a 25% interest; both Grants were bamboozled by Ward, an investment whiz kid, whose judgment turned sour and whose problems were hidden from the Grants until the collapse of the firm.

This shook Grant, who had no pension either as a result of his military service or his presidency, and who (not starting with significant assets) had serious concern about how he was going to support his wife and family.  To make matters worse, in early 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer (he was an inveterate cigar smoker) and from that date until his death less than one and a half years later, spent most of his time writing articles for a number of periodicals about his military days, and his memoirs.  Perry’s description of Grant’s writing of his memoirs, which were completely only a few days before he died, during a period of increasing pain and decreasing strength, is the description of will power in action.  Grant was intent on finishing his books, and with the help of two researchers and fact checkers, and a couple of men who read over his drafts (including Twain), he sat in his room, and wrote and wrote and wrote, sometimes well into the night since he often could not sleep because of the pain in any event.  A more than impressive accomplishment.

Meanwhile, Twain had had success with “Tom Sawyer” and less success with his other writings, but was very well known and, unlike Grant, had a very expensive life style (Grant and his wife Julia lived well, but  not extravagantly), which required more money than he was making from his writing and his lecture tours.  He went into a number of business ventures (none successful), promoted several inventions (also without success), and was the owner of an upstart Hartford publishing firm, named for his business manager, Charles L. Webster.  It was the desire of Twain to publish Grant’s memoirs that led to their first meeting, and it was the first meeting that led to their friendship and eventual publishing arrangement.

The format of the book is interesting, because although it focuses on their relationship, it also relates the biography of each of them, often a chapter devoted to one, and then one devoted to the other.  The chapters on Twain are rather straight forward, the way any other biographer would approach his subject (showing Twain as a somewhat cranky and frustrated author), but the Grant chapters only focus on Grant’s post-presidential life, with the exception of some references to various Civil War campaigns and battles, told as flashbacks as Grant rights his memoirs.  Thus, Perry speaks hardly at all of Grant’s presidency, and certainly does not provide anything like a complete history of Grant’s military career.  I say that not as criticism, but just to show Perry’s focus.

Now, as to the Jews (a subject to which I often return), I say this also not in criticism.  To my knowledge, there are no Jewish characters in Perry’s book, and nothing is said of either of their relationships to Jews.  Now, in fact, Jews did figure into their lives.  Grant is fairly well known for the infamous order he issued (soon stricken by President Lincoln) that all Jews be forced to leave the lower Mississippi River territory under Grant’s control during the Civil War.  A book by Jonathan Sarna, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” has recently been published to strong reviews.  Grant’s action was apparently occasioned by some complaints directed to a few Jewish commercial travelers, and was quickly of great embarrassment to General Grant, something he explained as a quick and wrong decision made in the fog of war.  He more than atoned for his sin during the remainder of his life, becoming rather close to the Jewish community and even participating in the dedication of my synagogue in Washington DC in 1876.  Similarly, Mark Twain (I do know that was not his real name) early in his writing career wrote some rather scathing descriptions of some Jews, but later he too atoned for his sins, becoming notoriously universalist and liberal, and winding up with a Jewish son in law with whom he was rather close (a pianist who became conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra).  Why both of them started out as they did, and ended so similarly in this regard is hard to say. Grant grew up in small town on the Ohio River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi and spent his post-West Point years in St. Louis, and of course Twain is from Hannibal, MO, right on the big river itself.  Perhaps there was something in the air.

In any event, I do recommend “Grant and Twain” because it not only throws light on the two title characters, but brings them together, something that otherwise we would probably never know.


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