Grant and Twain III
Bill Long 2/8/06
The Rest of the Story
Exclusive emphasis on Perry's internal inconsistencies in telling the story of Grant's last 14 months obscures the engaging and even moving tale he tells of those months. Like the story of Lincoln's last day, however, in some ways the tale of Grant's last 14 months almost tells itself. It is a story of such courage, perseverance and grace that even had Perry not been skillful in citation and story-telling, the story would still have been a powerful one. But he adds poignant details and human touches throughout the narrative that show the quiet dignity of a dying man, who loved his country enough to give it his memoirs of, among other things, that sectional strife that nearly divided us. This essay describes two things: Grant's determination in the midst of his physical decline and Perry's argument about the way that Grant may have influenced the shape of Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
The Last 9 Months of Grant's Life
Grant died at 8:08 a.m. on July 23, 1885. In mid-October 1884 he finally got a diagnosis from his NY doctors of throat cancer. Though they were hesitant to tell him the seriousness of the disease, one of his doctors, Dr. George Shrady, saw the culture taken from his throat and proclaimed without emotion, "General Grant is a dead man." About the beginning of Nov. 1884, then, Grant began work on what would become his two-volume Personal Memoirs. But the pain was at times excruciating. As early as December he was quoted as saying,
"It is very difficult for me to swallow enough to maintain my strength and nothing gives me so much pain as swallowing water. If you can imagine what molten lead would be going down your throat, that is what I feel when swallowing" (quoted on p. 71).
Nevertheless he gave himself to two monumental tasks--the writing of four essays (one as long as 20,000 words) for Century magazine on four crucial battles he led in the War (Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Wilderness) and his two-volume memoir. But Grant's "decline" was not sudden, as if he lived without major symptoms until July, nor was it a gradual decline. It was a decline punctuated by severe cases of coughing and vomiting in December, February and March, and the doctors had all but given up hope for his life at the end of March 1885. Often Grant would have to leave the family dinner table because he didn't want others to see the "searing discomfort" which he experirenced (p. 79).
In February 1885 Grant finally signed a contract with Twain to publish the book for extremely generous royalties (Twain had given him the option of 20% of gross sales or 70% of profits--Grant chose the former--a truly unheard-of "deal" for a writer). The editors of Century doubled what they originally planned to pay Grant for each article ($2,000), so that Grant had some money coming in near the end of his life. In addition, in the last act of his administration, President Chester A. Arthur, a Grant "fan," signed a bill restoring Grant's military pension--which he had given up in 1868 so that other military men behind him would be able to rise in rank. Perry even tells the humorous story that someone had to "set back" the official clock of Congress twenty minutes so that this act could get passed and signed before Grover Cleveland took office.
Beginning in late February, Grant was assigned a stenographer, Noble Dawson, who had accompanied Grant during a trip to Mexico. Grant would then not write as much as he previously had done. He would simply dictate the MS to Dawson, sometimes as much as 10,000 words in one day. Erroneous newspaper reports on two themes: that death was imminent (a matter of hours) and that someone else (his assistant Badeau) was writing the Memoirs caused Grant to have to deal with the latter through a letter to one of the papers. He simply ignored the former. But Grant was unable to sleep and eat, and would often hack uncontrollably for hours before expectorating blood and then getting back to work. He was gradually starving to death, so difficult was it even to get a few drops of water down his swollen throat.
But still he pressed on. He was nearly finished both volumes on June 16, when his doctors recommended that he retreat to Mt. McGregor, twelve miles from Saratoga Springs, and adjacent to the Balmoral Hotel which Philadelphia financier Joseph Drexel was trying to promote. His exhaustion was now almost complete, but he managed to finish the project on July 19, 1885, with the final words of his memoirs reading, "Let there be peace." His last three days were spent with one more view of the valley near Mt. McGregor and then in gradually losing consciousness. Had Abraham Lincoln been alive to commemorate his greatest General, he would probably have said that Grant gave his last breath so that the course of the war would be explained and the path of peace would be well-trod.
In the light of this stirring narrative, it really was unnecessary for Perry to try to advance the thesis that Twain was influenced in shaping the second half of Huckleberry Finn by his friendship with Grant or knowledge of Grant's Vicksburg campaign. In addition, it is overstated to say that the friendship of the two men really was key to the writing/production of the Memoirs. It is even less likely that the wild claim made in the title is true--that somehow their friendship "changed America." But these latter are hyperbole, probably encouraged by the editor or publisher, to which Perry acquiesced. The story of Grant stands on its own feet, however--the remarkable tale of a man, as good as dead, who produces in his dying days the most eloquently powerful narration of his life/the Civil War as any ever written by a general. Though Twain is integral to the story, it is as the tough-minded and ambitious publisher who wanted to get the word out of his honored friend, US Grant. We can be grateful that Twain persisted as he did.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long