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The story of Mark Twain's friendship with Ulysses S. Grant has always fascinated students of both men. They possessed different personalities, backgrounds and temperaments, but their relationship flourished in the waning years of Grant's life, and remains an intriguing subject for study.
Admirers of Twain and Grant have often wondered about the dynamics of the friendship. How could an irreverent, mercurial genius such as Twain hitch so well with the self-contained Grant, a man so shy that he blushed to the roots of his hair when given a compliment? The relationship between the extroverted humorist and the stolid soldier defies logic, yet it worked. Grant relied on Twain to publish his memoirs in 1885, allowing him to retain a large percentage of the profits, and Twain relished a personal intimacy with the Civil War's victorious General. Other authors have tackled their relationship, notably Justin Kaplan and Richard Goldhurst, but there has never been a joint study of America's greatest writer and greatest soldier. Mark Perry's new book, Grant and Twain. The Story of a Friendship that Changed America finally addresses this complex subject and reveals that the relationship between the two men was substantial, practical and surprisingly human.
Though Twain and Grant were contemporaries, they were thirteen years apart in age and did not lay eyes upon each other until 1866. Twain first met Grant in a receiving line in 1866 and was so overawed he couldn't utter a word. They met again in 1869 and this time Twain managed to splutter, "General, I'm embarrassed. Are you?" Grant gazed at the young author without a change of expression and said nothing. But he never forgot the incident and referred to it years later when they met again in Chicago. From the outset, Twain was an enthusiastic admirer, and his feelings for the General eventually developed into hero worship. After Grant's death in 1885, Twain alluded to him in conversation and letters for the rest of his life, usually in reverential tones. No doubt the taciturn Grant had etched his persona into Twain, who was fascinated by the "gentle sweetness" that marked the General's character.
Perry attempts to sort out the complexities of their lives in a readable, workmanlike fashion. He succeeds on some levels, but struggles in other areas. Twain's rapier-like wit and restless excitability are present, but not in sufficient quantity. His desperate desire to be rich led to a series of disastrous investments which are scarcely touched upon. Though treated generously, Twain takes a back seat to Grant, who dominates most of the narrative. It is interesting because General Grant never spoke much about Twain to others, nor did he write about his relationship with him. Conversely, Twain fairly bubbled over with information on the General and wrote about him in numerous letters, his notebooks and, of course, his Autobiography. Grant, the eternally silent man, was circumspect and never revealed what he thought about his literary friend. But it is obvious he enjoyed Twain immensely; he always gravitated towards men who were funny and extroverted, two qualities Twain possessed in abundance.
Perry grasps the dynamics of the Twain-Grant relationship even if he does not always flesh out the personalities of the men themselves. The two icons forged a unique alliance, one made more curious because they were so dissimilar. Grant rarely let his guard down, but there's no doubt he grew genuinely fond of Twain, and was supremely fortunate that Twain published his Memoirs. That stroke of fortune enabled his widow to live a life devoid of want after his death, the prime motivation for him writing the book in the first place.
The early lives of Twain and Grant are given brisk, rather flat treatments, and these chapters offer nothing new. The book improves as Twain, the perennial "Grant-intoxicated man,"(a phrase Perry borrows from Justin Kaplan), grows closer to the General during the last five years of the soldier's life. The heart of the story is Grant's gritty race with death in order to complete his Personal Memoirs and Twain's role as publisher of that work. When Grant bit into a peach at his New Jersey summer house in June 1884, this was the first sign of the throat cancer that would kill him a year later. Perry is on strong ground when he concentrates on this period, with Twain emerging as the General's close friend, publisher and literary consultant. Grant's struggle with cancer, the incessant pain and his methods of writing in the midst of such agony is the crux of the story.
Perry strives valiantly to explain the two protagonists, but he runs into many obstacles. Only occasionally does the reader get into the minds of either man, and their personalities remain elusive. The author has a tendency to offer opinions which are problematic: Twain's daughter, Susy, did not "know him better than anyone" (p. 95); Grant's valet did not "know him best" or "certainly as well" as his son, Fred (p. 77); Adam Badeau was never viewed as Grant's "alter ego" by his staff (p. 72); nor was Grant's father-in-law, Frederick Dent a "prodigious worker" (p. 16); he was, in fact, universally viewed as a human sloth, one of the laziest men who ever drew breath.
The area of personal relationships in the book is lackluster and the importance of family relationships receives cursory mention. Both men were intensely affectionate, devoted fathers who delighted in the presence of their children. Perry does understand the importance of Susy Clemens, but seems more perplexed by the Grant children and their methods of relating to their father. Perry is particularly weak in revealing much about Twain's relationship with his wife, who remains a shadowy, almost non-existent presence. His affectionate letters to "darling Livy" are alluded to briefly, though quoting them fully would have been far more beneficial, particularly letters from April and July 1885 which touch directly upon Grant. Twain's insatiable need to be loved, noticed and admired is not emphasized, so the reader comes away with an empty impression of the most vibrant character in the story. Considering his dazzling personality, this is especially troubling.
The author does a better job in portraying Julia Dent Grant, the General's wife, and correctly emphasizes Grant's emotional dependence upon her and their rich, happy marriage. However, he commits an egregious blunder when he describes Julia's treatment of her husband as he lay dying as alternating between "a hovering and suffocating concern and distant emotional rejection" (p. 80). There are dozens of witnesses during the General's last months and none ever described his devoted wife as either distant or rejecting.
The greatest pitfall is that Perry's research reveals gaping holes and errors litter the book. Some are minor mistakes, others are more substantial: Twain's father is identified as a judge, but Perry does not explain that he was a justice of the peace. Perry states that Fred Grant wrote a book but he does not explain that it was a seventeen-page War Department report. Julia Grant did not die in 1904, she died in 1902. Georgetown is in Ohio, not in Kentucky. Grant and William H. Vanderbilt never appeared in court together. The editor of The Ulysses S. Grant Papers is not John Y. Simons, he is John Y. Simon. William B. Franklin was never a "close friend" of Grant (actually there was real enmity between them). Chester A. Arthur was certainly not a "heroic combat veteran" in the Civil War, he was a desk clerk in New York City. Grant's wife never read aloud to her husband because she suffered from strabismus, an eye condition which made reading difficult for her. These are a fraction of the mistakes whose collective weight becomes suffocating. A careful editor and more diligent research could have prevented most of these misstatements.
Perry also drops the ball in other areas. Though he devotes several pages to General Grant's African-American servant, Harrison Tyrell, and points out Tyrell has been ignored by historians, he does not quote Twain's letter to Henry Ward Beecher relating to the faithful valet. Here Twain revealed that the Grant family detested Tyrell and fired him as soon as the General was dead: "The whole family hated him, [Tyrell], but that did not make any difference, the General always stood at his back, wouldn't allow him to be scolded, always excused his failures and deficiencies with the one uncaring formula, 'We are responsible for these things in his race - it is not fair to visit our faults upon him, let him alone'" . Perry focuses on the subjects of racism and slavery, so Grant's liberal views regarding African-Americans should have been included.
Some intriguing aspects of Twain and Grant's relationship are also ignored. Perry neglects to mention that one of Grant's favorite books was Innocents Abroad, (Grant read it twice), or that he read Life on the Mississippi in 1883. Grant's personal copy of this book was owned by his son, U.S. Grant, Jr. and contained some marginal notes in his father's hand. Unmentioned is the fact that the General attended a performance of The Gilded Age in 1874, and that cartoonist Thomas Nast spent many an evening in the company of Twain and Grant in the early 1880's. The fact that Nast's letters are not quoted is a curious omission, considering he describes playing cards with the two men, smoking cigars and eating baked beans in Grant's New York office. His recollections are valuable and would have enhanced the book.
Perry fares better when discussing Twain's development of the Huck Finn character and the book's publication in December 1884. His appreciation of Twain's masterpiece is a notable strength. The author's comparison of General Grant to the character of Jim is an intriguing approach and one not advanced by previous scholars. Perry contrasts Twain's trip down the Mississippi in 1882 to Grant's early Civil War campaigns in the West. He argues that during Twain's journey, he realized that the "only way to free Huck and Jim was to send them south" (p. 102). This was the same conclusion Grant had reached early in the Civil War: he must move South in order to strangle the Confederacy, free the slaves and end the war.
Twain's remarkable accomplishment of writing/publishing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and distributing Grant's Personal Memoirs within the span of a year is given its proper due. Perry makes the case that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the greatest American work of fiction and that The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant is the finest non-fiction book by an American. The fact they were published within a year of each other and by men who were close friends is a remarkable story and one deftly narrated by Perry.
Another positive element is the examination of Grant's views on religion. Perry concludes that Grant was bored with organized religion and merely allowed praying to go in his presence because it placated his wife. The bombastic, boring pastor of Grant's last days, Reverend John Newman, is suitably roasted. Perry delights in exposing this religious zealot's fruitless desire to convert Grant into a fervent Methodist. The author also shines in his description of the Century magazine attempting to secure publication rights to Grant's book, only to be thwarted when Twain obtained publication rights for himself. Twain's friendship with sculptor Karl Gerhardt is given the attention it deserves. Equally impressive is Perry's description of General William T. Sherman's relationship with his old commander and his efforts to ease his financial burdens during his illness. Indeed, one wishes Perry had understood Grant as well as he did General Sherman, whom he describes vibrantly.
Ultimately Grant and Twain, The Story of a Friendship that Changed America is a book of missed opportunities. For years, scholars have longed for a meaningful examination of Twain and Grant's enigmatic relationship. Though Perry gives it an able try, there are simply too many factual errors. An example of Perry not acknowledging recent scholarship appears on the final page of the book. The author claims that the initials "G.G." which appear in the "Notice" of Adventures Huckleberry Finn can only refer to General Grant. The newest University of California editions of Huckleberry Finn, annotated by the editors of the Mark Twain Papers, suggest that "G.G." more likely refers to Twain's butler George Griffin. Perry's book does include reference notes, bibliography and an index.
The author's willingness to tackle this subject is commendable, and the book
will undoubtedly warrant positive attention. It is well-written in a breezy
fashion. But the many errors compromise its integrity and raise questions about
the quality of the author's research. One hopes future editions will address
this problem and remove the inaccuracies. The definitive examination of the
Twain-Grant relationship remains to be written.
 SLC to Henry Ward Beecher, 11 Sept. 1885 in Mark Twain's Letters, Vol.
II, edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, Harper and Bros., 1917.