The Sphinx Talks
Even as other Civil War generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print. The son of an incorrigible small-town braggart, the unassuming general and two-time president harbored a lifelong aversion to boasting. He was content to march to his grave in dignified silence, letting his extraordinary wartime record speak for itself.
Then, at the close of 1883, fate dealt him a series of progressively more savage blows that shattered this high-minded resolve. Returning to his Manhattan town house on Christmas Eve, Grant, sixty-one, pivoted to hand the driver a holiday tip when he slipped on the icy pavement and crashed to the ground, tearing a thigh muscle and possibly fracturing his hip. Until then a robust man, he crumpled over in excruciating pain and was hoisted up the steps by servants. Through anxious winter weeks, he remained bedridden or hobbled about on crutches. Before long, his discomfort intensified with the agonizing onset of pleurisy, coupled with severe rheumatism that crept up his legs, making it difficult for him to negotiate the familiar rooms.
Still worse lay in store. Several years earlier, Grant had entered into a promising partnership, christened Grant & Ward, with twenty-nine-year-old Ferdinand Ward, touted as the “Young Napoleon of Finance.” Thanks to his colleague’s financial wizardry, Grant seemed to coast on a tide of easy riches, fancying himself a newly minted millionaire. Then, one morning in early May 1884, he awoke to discover that Ward had manufactured the profits from thin air, the whole scheme was a colossal fraud, and he was ruined along with friends and family members who had entrusted their life savings to the firm. Abruptly Grant was thrust back into his early years of hardship at lonely frontier garrisons, on his unprofitable farm in St. Louis, and at his father’s leather goods emporium in Galena, Illinois — places where he was branded an economic failure. Now, to scrape by and pay household bills, he had to endure the degradation of accepting money sent by total strangers as acts of charity.
At this point, Grant was seized by more than a desperate need to earn ready cash: he had to cast off the stigma of failure and reclaim his stature before the public and posterity. As his longtime friend William Tecumseh Sherman observed, he had “lost everything, and more in reputation.” To a friend, Grant confided, “I could bear all the pecuniary loss if that was all, but that I could be so long deceived by a man who I had such opportunity to know is humiliating.” So Grant proved receptive when editors of the prestigious Century Magazine solicited a series of articles about his foremost Civil War victories. “I consented for the money it gave me,” Grant admitted, “for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money.”
That June, at his rambling seaside cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, Grant experienced a strange sensation that foreshadowed another grave problem. His wife, Julia, served him “a plate of delicious peaches on the table,” but as he swallowed one, he stopped and winced. “Oh my,” he said, “I think something has stung me from that peach.” He sprang from his chair, strode the porch in distress, then rinsed out his throat, to no avail. “He was in great pain and said water hurt like fire,” Julia recalled. Throughout the summer, Grant, who had once smoked twenty cigars a day, was vexed by a baffling sore throat that never faded. Although Julia begged him to see a physician, he procrastinated for months; this man who was so intrepid on the battlefield seemed to dread the looming diagnosis. When at last he consulted his Manhattan doctor in October, he received grim tidings: a mass on his throat and tongue was “epithelial” in character — code language for cancer. To worsen matters, he was afflicted by painful neuralgia and had three large teeth extracted. All the while, he limped about from the Christmas Eve mishap.
Terrified that if he died he would leave Julia destitute, Grant agreed to pen his memoirs and relive his glory days of battle. As seen in his wartime orders, he had patented a lean, supple writing style, and a crisp narrative now flowed in polished sentences, honed by the habits of a lifetime. Words poured from this supposedly taciturn man, showing how much thought and pent-up feeling lay beneath his tightly buttoned facade. He wrote in an overstuffed leather armchair, his outstretched legs swaddled by blankets, resting on a facing chair. He wore a wool cap over thick brown hair now streaked with gray, a shawl draped over his shoulders, and a muffler around his neck concealing a tumor the size of a baseball.
Seldom, if ever, has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances. Whenever he swallowed anything, Grant was stricken with pain and had to resort to opiates that clouded his brain. As a result, he endured extended periods of thirst and hunger as he labored over his manuscript. The torment of the inflamed throat never ceased. When the pain grew too great, his black valet, Harrison Terrell, sprayed his throat with “cocaine water,” temporarily numbing the area, or applied hot compresses to his head. Despite his fear of morphine addiction, Grant could not dispense entirely with such powerful medication.
“I suffer pain all the time, except when asleep,” he told his doctor. Although bolstered by analgesics, Grant experienced only partial relief, informing a reporter that “when the suffering was so intense . . . he only wished for the one great relief to all human pain.”
Summoning his last reserves of strength, through a stupendous act of willpower, Grant toiled four to six hours a day, adding more time on sleepless nights. For family and friends his obsessive labor was wondrous to behold: the soldier so famously reticent that someone quipped he “could be silent in several languages” pumped out 336,000 words of superb prose in a year. By May 1885, just two months before his death, Grant was forced to dictate, and, when his voice failed, he scribbled messages on thin strips of paper. Always cool in a crisis, Grant exhibited the prodigious stamina and granite resolve of his wartime effort.
Nobody was more thunderstruck than Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who had recently formed a publishing house with his nephew-in-law Charles Webster. To snare Grant’s memoirs, sure to be a literary sensation, Twain boosted the royalty promised by the Century’s publishers and won the rights. Twain had never seen a writer with Grant’s gritty determination. When this man “under sentence of death with that cancer” produced an astonishing ten thousand words in one day, Twain exclaimed, “It kills me these days to write half of that.” He was agog when Grant dictated at one sitting a nine-thousand-word portrait of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox “never pausing, never hesitating for a word, never repeating — and in the written-out copy he made hardly a correction.” Twain, who considered the final product a masterwork, scoffed at scuttlebutt he had ghostwritten it. “There is no higher literature than these modern, simple Memoirs,” he insisted. “Their style is flawless . . . no man can improve upon it.”
For Twain, the revelation of Grant’s character was as startling as his storytelling. Eager to spare his family, Grant was every inch the stoic gentleman. Only at night, when he was asleep, did his face grimace with pain. “The sick-room brought out the points of General Grant’s character,” Twain wrote. “His exceeding gentleness, kindness, forbearance, lovingness, charity. . . . He was the most lovable great child in the world.” For one observer, it was wrenching to watch Grant “with a bandage about his aching head, and a horrible and mortal disease clutching his throat.” He felt “a great ache when I look at him who had saved us all when we were bankrupt in treasure and in leaders, and see him thus beset by woes and wants.” In a magnificent finale, Grant finished the manuscript on July 16, 1885, one week before his death in upstate New York. He had steeled himself to stay alive until the last sentence was done and he could surrender his pen.
From “Grant” by Ron Chernow. Copyright © 2017 by Ron Chernow. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company.