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Personal Memoirsby Geoffrey Perret
Synopses & Reviews
Mark Twain had known many of the great men of the Civil War and the Gilded Age, and esteemed none more highly than Ulysses S. Grant, who was modest, sensitive, generous, honest, and superlatively intelligent. Grant's courage, both moral and physical, was a matter of record. His genius as a general assured his immortality. In 1881, Twain urged Grant to write his memoirs.
No one is interested in me, Grant replied. Out of the army, out of office, and out of favor--that was his life now. He reminded Twain that the Military History of Ulysses S. Grant, written by his wartime assistant, Adam Badeau, had sold poorly. And John Russell Young's book, Around the World with General Grant, published in 1879, had been a complete flop.
Broke and sick--he began suffering agonizingly painful throat cancer in 1884-- Grant agreed to write four articles for the Century Magazine on some of his Civil War battles, and Century offered to publish his memoirs if only he'd write them. Twain was on a lecture tour when he heard that Grant might be willing to write a book and hurried back to New York to tell Grant that he could arrange for publication of the book by a small firm that he controlled. Grant accepted his offer because Twain had been the first person to suggest he write his memoirs.
The inflexible will and powerful mind that helped make Grant a great general were stronger than the torturing pain, the sleepless nights, the terrors of death. Yet there was no sense of this heroic struggle in the narrative he produced with stubby pencils or by dictating to a secretary. The book was like the man himself--often humorous, frequently charming, always lucid, sometimes poignant, generous to his enemies, loyal to his friends. Twain was astonished when he discovered that Grant had produced a considerably longer book than he had contracted to write, but Grant had always tried to give more than was expected of him. He did so even now.
Grant finished his book in July 1885. The Memoirs were a triumph. The narrative has the directness and limpidity of the purest English prose as it was first crafted by William Tyndell and then spread throughout the English-speaking world in the King James version of the Bible.
Grant had reached deep into himself and into the world history of the Anglo-American people to grasp the core of its culture, the English language. He trusted in that narrative style that achieves its effects by never straining for effect, assembled it into vivid pictures sufficiently understated to allow an intelligent reader's imagination room to expand, and shaped a literary architecture with a born artist's eye.
His recollections were inevitably partial and selective. As with all memoirs, Grant's was at its best as a revelation of the way he remembered the events of his tumultuous life and the feelings they evoked in him as death drew near. Its truth was less in the details of what he recalled as in the story he had to tell, of justice triumphant over a great evil.
On July 23, 1885, several days after correcting the galley proofs of his book, Grant died in a summer cottage on the slopes of Mount McGregor, New York, surrounded by friends and family. The memoirs, published a few months later, have never been out of print.
The distinguished Civil War general and America's eighteenth president describes his education at West Point, personal life, military career, and political philosophy in a new edition of Grant's personal memoirs. Reprint.
"One of the most unflinching studies of war in our literature."--William McFeeley
Among the autobiographies of great military figures, Ulysses S. Grant's is certainly one of the finest, and it is arguably the most notable literary achievement of any American president: a lucid, compelling, and brutally honest chronicle of triumph and failure. From his frontier boyhood to his heroics in battle to the grinding poverty from which the Civil War ironically "rescued" him, these memoirs are a mesmerizing, deeply moving account of a brilliant man, told with great courage as he reflects on the fortunes that shaped his life and his character. Written under excruciating circumstances (as Grant was dying of throat cancer), encouraged and edited from its very inception by Mark Twain, it is a triumph of the art of autobiography.
The books in the Modern Library War series have been chosen by series editor Caleb Carr according to the significance of their subject matter, their contribution to the field of military history, and their literary merit.
About the Author
Ulysses Simpson Grant, the commander-in-chief of Union forces during the final years of the Civil War and subsequently the eighteenth president of the United States, was born on April 27, 1822, in a two-room cabin in the remote settlement of Point Pleasant, Ohio. His family, he proudly declared, had been American 'for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.' When he was eighteen months old the Grants moved to the nearby village of Georgetown, where his father established a tannery. A taciturn, solitary child who loved horses, Grant received a rudimentary education at local subscription schools. He also attended the Maysville Seminary in Maysville, Kentucky, and the Presbyterian Academy in Ripley, Ohio. In 1839 his father arranged for him to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point. 'If I could have escaped West Point without bringing myself into disgrace at home, I would have done so,' Grant later confessed. But he excelled in mathematics and engineering, graduating with an overall academic standing that placed him in the middle of the class of 1843.
Commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Regiment, Grant reported to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, then the largest army base west of the Mississippi. He fought under General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War of 1846, serving with many officers he would later command or fight against during the Civil War. Upon returning home in 1848 he married Julie Dent, the sister of a West Point classmate. Grant spent the next six years assigned to routine garrison duty in a succession of dreary military posts and began drinking heavily. He resigned from the army in 1854 with the rank of captain and went back to Missouri to seek employment. He failed miserably at several different occupations and finally ended up working as a clerk in his father's leather-goods store in Galena, Illinois.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Grant re-entered the service as a colonel in the Illinois volunteer regiment and was soon appointed brigadier general. After leading expeditions that seized Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the first major Union victories in the war, he commanded forces at the battle of Shiloh and later broke Confederate control of the Mississippi by capturing Vicksburg. President Lincoln promoted him to lieutenant general and named him commander of the Union army following the success of the pivotal Chattanooga campaign. The appointment seemed to support Grant's own assertion that 'it is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.' In spite of heavy losses in the bloody Wilderness campaign aimed at immobilizing General Robert E. Lee near the Confederate capital at Richmond while General William Tecumseh Sherman led the western Union army southward through Georgia, Grant eventually crushed the enemy and accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
In 1868 the Republican Party nominated the popular war hero as their presidential candidate, and Grant was elected with a narrow victory in the popular vote. Lacking an overall vision for the country, he proved ineffective as president while his cabinet of cronies and political contributors was both incompetent and corrupt. As Grant later confessed: 'I did not want the Presidency, and I have never quite forgiven myself for resigning the command of the army to accept it.' He won re-election in 1872 despite a series of financial scandals that forever tarnished his administration. A contemporary, the skeptical patrician Henry Adams, delivered a stinging indictment of Grant and Gilded Age politics that has become justly famous: 'The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.'
Upon leaving the White House in 1877, Grant embarked on a two-year journey around the world. After a failed bid for a third term as president, Grant settled in New York City, where he became associated with an investment firm only to be swindled by his partner and left financially ruined. In 1884 he began to write reminiscences of his military campaigns for the Century Magazine. Though suffering from cancer of the throat, Grant signed a contract with Mark Twain to publish his memoirs and devoted the last months of his life to writing an account of the war in which he had played so large a part. Ulysses S. Grant died in Mount McGregor, New York, a summer resort in the Adirondacks, on July 23, 1885, less than one week after finishing work on the final proofs of Personal Memoirs. Issued posthumously, the book sold three hundred thousand copies, earning Grant's widow roughly $450,000 in royalties.
'No other American president has told his story as powerfully as Ulysses Grant did in his Personal Memoirs,' judged biographer William S. McFeely. 'The book is one of the most unflinching studies of war in our literature.' Gertrude Stein admired it extravagantly, noting: 'I cannot think of Ulysses Simpson Grant without tears.' In Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, Edmund Wilson wrote: 'This record of Grant's campaigns may well rank, as Mark Twain believed, as the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. It is also, in its way&--like Herndon's Lincoln or like Walden or Leaves of Grass--a unique expression of the national character. . . . The capacity for inspiring confidence, the impression Grant gave of reserves of force, comes through in the Personal Memoirs without pose or premeditation. . . . What distinguished Grant's story from the records of campaigns that are usually produced by generals is that somehow, despite its sobriety, it communicates the spirit of the battles themselves and makes it possible to understand how Grant won them. . . . He has also, without conscious art, conveyed the suspense which was felt by himself and his army and by all who believed in the Union cause. The reader finds himself involved--he is actually on edge to know how the Civil War is coming out.' And Gore Vidal concluded: 'It is simply not possible to read Grant's memoirs without realizing that the author is a man of first-rate intelligence.'
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