U.s. Grant: Man Of Letters

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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.