U.s. Grant: Man Of Letters


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?