The Story of a Friendship That Changed America

By Mark Perry. Random House. 294 pp. $24.95 Ulysses S. Grant's two-volume autobiography, published in 1885 by a firm owned by Mark Twain, must be counted among this country's great books, though Mark Perry goes a bit overboard when he calls Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant "the single most important work of nonfiction in our literature." Perry in fact seems to be in the grip of hyperbole, since in the same paragraph he says that "American nonfiction . . . is our nation's most lasting and important gift to the world" and since, in his subtitle, he claims that the friendship of Grant and Twain "Changed America."

Or maybe it's his publisher who deserves blame for this last, since these days publishers are forever claiming that one thing or another "Changed America" or "Changed the World" or "Changed Field Hockey" or whatever. But there's a good deal of evidence that Perry simply can't let well enough alone. He's absolutely right to say that how Grant wrote his memoir is an "epic story" -- a "tale recounted and passed down to succeeding generations" -- but he isn't content to let the tale speak for itself. Instead he insists that not merely did Twain play an essential role in the evolution of Grant's Personal Memoirs but that Grant had a no less significant influence on Twain as the latter wrote the final section of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

This is (or so it seems to me) absurd on its face, yet there probably is a reasonable explanation for it. The story Perry tells has been told many times, so it's natural that he would want to put his own stamp on it -- to provide, if you will, a justification for his book's existence. No justification is needed. The story itself is enough. In the many biographies of Grant and Twain, both of whom led lives full of incident and event, no more than a few pages can be given to the writing and publication of Grant's autobiography, yet in the development of American literature it is a singular chapter that deserves fuller and closer attention.

At least two previous books, by Richard Goldhurst and Thomas M. Pitkin, have addressed this subject, and Perry acknowledges their work as "an essential starting point for this book." But both are out of print, leaving the field pretty much open for Perry. He seizes the opportunity, as suggested above, with mixed results. He has done a lot of research and has boiled down existing sources, both primary and secondary, to the pertinent essence, though after all these years there isn't much new to be added to them. Apart from his ventures into hyperbole and speculation, Perry hasn't much of his own to say except that "Harrison Tyrrell, an unappreciated and virtually unknown figure in Grant's life, did as much as anyone else to ease Grant's suffering during the last months of his life and make it possible for him to write his memoirs." Tyrrell, who was black, "was Grant's valet, his messenger and his confidant." So at least Perry claims, though he has no choice except to admit in his "Notes" that "the historical record of this dedicated friend of Grant's is very sparse."

Otherwise it's mostly familiar stuff, though familiarity scarcely diminishes its drama. The story is almost as much a part of American legend as George Washington and the cherry tree, though in Grant's case the story is true. In 1884 Grant was seven years removed from the White House, living in New York City in considerable splendor, when his life fell apart. Grant & Wood, the Wall Street firm in which he was a partner, went bankrupt, leaving him broke and deeply in debt, and he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Until then he had resisted pleas that he write his memoirs, but he was determined to repay his debts and to leave enough money so that his beloved wife, Julia, would be adequately provided for after his death.

After a modest amount of competition he settled on Mark Twain as his publisher and began work in October 1884. He "worked from the early morning each day to well into the evening in a small room at the head of the stairs on the second floor at his home on 66th Street," assisted by his son Fred, "his researcher and editor," and Adam Badeau, a close aide during the Civil War who had written widely on that conflict and was richly informed, albeit "opinionated, ill-tempered, impatient, egotistical and aggressively ambitious." Most of the time Grant was in excruciating pain. Swallowing was "a searing discomfort," so he "was imprisoned by a diet of soups and oatmeal." Yet he persevered. "My tears blind me," his wife told a friend. "General Grant is very ill. I cannot write how ill." He had a brief respite in early 1885, but it didn't last long. As word of his condition got out -- a front-page headline in the New York Times read, "GRANT IS DYING" -- a death watch assembled outside his house, yet he soldiered on: "This was now more than just a task, it was a great challenge -- and it fortified him in ways that he could not have imagined. His memoirs would become his reason for living, the means by which he tapped into the enormous reservoirs of strength that, at the most important moments of his life, he had always believed were there. Grant was aware of how his writing was strengthening him, giving him a new resolve."

That the memoir was keeping him alive was literally true. On July 19 he completed the manuscript of the second volume. He died four days later. In a letter one of his doctors wrote: "Nine months of close attention to him have only endeared him to me. I have learned to know him as few can know him. The world can know him as a great general, as a successful politician; but I know him as a patient, self-sacrificing, gentle, quiet, uncomplaining sufferer, looking death calmly in the face and counting almost the hours in which he had to live. . . . If he was great in his life, he was even greater in death. Not a murmur, not a moan, from first to last. He died as he had lived, a true man."

The memoirs were, as Twain had known they would be, a spectacular success. Julia Grant "received nearly $450,000 from the sale of her husband's book," a very large sum indeed in the late 19th century. Not merely that, but they were recognized at once for their astonishing literary qualities, concisely described by Twain: "clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech." Read today, more than a century after their original publication, they have lost none of their freshness or power. Their place in American and world literature may not be quite so exalted as Perry claims, but it is very high indeed.

All of which leaves no doubt that the story is about Grant. Twain is important to it chiefly as Grant's publisher and friend. Though Twain was a decade and a half younger than Grant, the two men had much in common, including roots in the frontier, strong ambition and persistent financial difficulties. Both strongly opposed slavery and supported rights and opportunities for black Americans, but it strikes me as exaggeration to claim, as Perry does, that Twain was inspired by Grant's campaigns along the Mississippi during the Civil War to send Huck and Jim south along the same great river toward freedom.

Perry is of course entitled to his theories, though this one seems to have a lot more to do with conjecture than with hard evidence. It gives the impression of having been trumped up to give Grant and Twain a raison d'etre and is hardly a convincing one. Readers in search of a straightforward account of the writing of Grant's memoirs will do better with Thomas M. Pitkin's The Captain Departs than with Grant and Twain. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain