[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]
On three figures in Grant’s life we can better remember through his acclaimed autobiography The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885-1886).
1) Mark Twain: Twain of course needs no help garnering a prominent place in our collective memories; but as that hyperlinked article indicates, his friendship with Grant is its own complex and compelling story, and one that contributed significantly to the writing, publication, and success of Grant’s memoir. Ever the marketing genius, Twain also devised a particularly innovative and impressive plan for publicizing and selling the book. But as I’ve learned while researching my current book project, the influences of Grant and Twain’s friendship went far beyond that final stage in Grant’s life (the book was published posthumously), and included their mutual connection to and role in advocating for the Hartford Chinese Educational Mission. One of many reasons to better remember these unlikely friends!
2) Adam Badeau: As that article traces at length (through the eyes of Henry Adams, no less), Grant’s longtime junior officer and friend had a far more fraught and controversial relationship to The Personal Memoirs. It seems likely, as the article notes, that Badeau served only as a researcher and fact-checker for the memoir, not (as he later litigiously claimed) its true author; but on the other hand, he had written multiple books about Grant’s military career, among many other works of nonfiction and fiction, so he might well have offered additional content and/or writing suggestions to Grant along the way. In any case, he reminds us that Grant’s Civil War service wasn’t just a central subject of the book—it remained, two decades later, the organizing principle around which most of Grant’s relationships and legacies were organized.
3) Julia Grant: But not the only nor the most important such organizing principle, of course. Julia and Ulysses were engaged as early as 1844 (although his Mexican American War service put the wedding off for a time), married in 1848, and remained married through Ulysses’ 1885 death. But she was more than a life partner; she was also very much the motivation for his race to finish the book before his death, as he had lost everything in a Ponzi scheme a year earlier and was desperate to provide for Julia and the family (hence Twain’s elaborate publicity and sales scheme, and hence Julia’s resistance to Badeau’s lawsuit for royalties). In the book Grant focuses almost entirely on his public persona and affairs, as was the norm for memoirs by public figures in the period; but it’s fair to say that the whole book was about his marriage in the most fundamental and inspiring ways.
Next GrantStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?