Mark Twain and Grant's Memoirs

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mentioned this in the post below, and it came up over the weekend on Twitter. (We were discussing the most underrated president of all time. Of course Grant came up.) A lot of really intelligent people are under the impression that Grant's lucid prose are really the result of Mark Twain's editing hand.


I was lucky enough to talk with Aaron Lisec a couple of years ago about this. Lisec is one of the editors of Grant's papers. Here is what he told me:

Completely baseless. Aside from the consistency with his diction and syntax, much of the manuscript survives, in Grant's hand, and what isn't in his hand is accounted for by letters describing secretaries hired to take dictation. You may know that the Memoirs originated in four articles Grant agreed to write for the Century Magazine, which ran a series on civil war battles told by the generals involved. He had turned down many such offers before, citing laziness, and only agreed after he lost all his money in May 1884, and had to raise funds fast. 

In Volume 31 of the Grant Papers, we document how he turned in the first article, on Shiloh, and had to be gently told that it sounded like an official report--the editors came down to his summer house in Long Branch and coaxed him into rewriting it in his own voice, with his own observations. You can see how the article changed after that, and how much better the next one was, and about that time he was diagnosed with cancer and decided to turn the whole thing into a memoir, forgoing the last two articles. I could go on, but you get the gist.

This note means a lot to me because I think the assumption that drunken failure (as he is often depicted in history) like Grant has implications beyond the White House. The beautiful thing about writing is it has no real respect for credentialism. You can get various degrees in writing. (Indeed my initial plan was to get an MFA.) But a degree can't make you a writer in the way that JD can make you a lawyer.

Great writing comes from all classes people and all kinds of experience. Edith Wharton was raised rich. E.L. Doctorow was not. 

When I visit schools around the country I consistently repeat this -- not because I think school is worthless, but because, very often, there are kids in the audience who are lost, just as I once was. I don't come there to contravene their education. I don't come there to tell them to drop out. On the contrary, I try to reinforce the ethic of hard work. But they need to know that a grade in a class, is not who they are -- and I would say that whether the grade is an A or an F. I failed English in high school. And then failed British Literature in college. For whatever reason, it simply wasn't my time. But had I taken those grades as an eternal mark, I doubt I would be talking to you now.

My sense is that people read Grant's writing, hear about the association with Twain and assume that that explains it. But what actually explains is working in a profession in which lives often hung on clear communication. It wasn't abstraction that gave him this:

It did seem to me, in my early army days, that too many of the older officers, when they came to command posts, made it a study to think what orders they could publish to annoy their subordinates and render them uncomfortable. I noticed, however, a few years later, when the Mexican war broke out, that most of this class of officers discovered they were possessed of disabilities which entirely incapacitated them for active field service. They had the moral courage to proclaim it, too. They were right; but they did not always give their disease the right name.

It was his lived experience. (And a God-given wit, no doubt.) Grant's life is a great example for young people who, like me, might find themselves lost with little immediate evidence that they will ever find their way. I hate how we have to clean this up by giving credit to Twain. It has echoes of the charges against Frederick Douglass and Obama. We hate that intelligence is so messy, that it would show itself in people we disdain or think we know.

But the fact that the best writing of the Civil War came from a frontiersman like Lincoln and middling West Point student like Grant is powerful. We should let it be true.

As an aside, there's also a rather nasty political aspect to the charge that Grant didn't really write his memoirs which Cynic covers here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/02/mark-twain-and-grants-memoirs/253343/