BY MATTHEW HERBERT
When Ulysses S. Grant sat down to write his memoirs in 1884, he needed the cash. Rather, his wife needed the cash. Grant was sick and destitute, and he knew Julia Boggs Grant would be a widow soon. He did not want her to live in penury after he was gone.
Grant had no idea he was a gifted writer. The prose that came from his pen during the last year of his life was natural and engaging–a real surprise. When Grant’s editors received his drafts, Edmund Wilson relates, they were amazed at how little work his copy needed.
For anyone like me, who has spent years struggling to write, Grant’s off-the-cuff performance inspires a little envy along with grace. It’s like a story of a man who, in his sixties, takes up the fiddle to squawk out some Bluegrass and discovers the thing is actually a violin and he can play Beethoven on it. Some people just have it.
In one of my first posts to this blog, I praised Orwell’s four reasons for writing, which he lays out with admirable clarity in the essay “Why I Write.” Scaled down, they are the same reasons I write–for notoriety, pleasure, to record events, and to advocate a political point of view.
Writing, it turns out, is a deeply satisfying, because deeply subversive, act. If you use it to discover your own mind, you can never be bought by the established powers. They cannot buy you with TV. They cannot buy you with flavor-engineered food. They cannot buy you with religion. You don’t have to be the prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow was to make the same life-affirming discovery he did–that we are eligible to be noble.
Writing, I believe, cannot fail to lead you to your better self.
Recall Huck Finn. He only decided not to give Jim up to the authorities after he had written a letter saying he would. When he saw his own words on paper, he tore them up, determined that he would rather go to hell than do the right thing and return Jim to his Christian enslavers. Jim would not be tortured, and Huck would not be bought by the establishment.
If you try hard enough to set down what is in your mind, you can actually defy mass culture, which is the Big Brother of 21st America. You can make the humane choice that Erich Fromm invites us to make in his landmark book To Have Or To Be?–living your own life, defined, not by your possessions, but by your thoughts and relationships. You need not accept the counterfeit life shaped for you by product designers, ad men, focus groups and SUPERPACs.
This call to high-minded rebellion may sound pathetically comical coming from a hillbilly-bureaucrat-failed-philosopher like myself, but it is not. Writing, like any creative act, awakens and recognizes the human eligibility to be noble. Recall Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell’s 1984, as his rebellion is just taking root. He is nothing but a cowed, isolated automaton made callous by Big Brother’s propaganda machine. What is his seminal act of defiance that saves him from inhumanity, from fake life? What is the sin that brings on his inquisition, torture and death? Writing. He has been secretly keeping a journal. The journal is what he is trying to hide from the surveillance cameras the first time we encounter him in his apartment in 1984.
What do Huck Finn’s letter and Winston Smith’s journal have to do with Ulysses Grant and his unexpected writing prowess? The saving power of writing–its ability to elevate human decency above crass materialism, egoism, or blind conformity.
Writing is inextricably linked to one’s motives, which I believe are always part of the essential project of discovering and creating oneself. In his preface to his memoirs, Grant lays out his reasons for writing, with touching understatement. For such a long book, about such an eventful life, Grant’s memoirs are introduced with a bare minimum of throat clearing, only about a page. And yet Grant reveals so much. His preface in full:
“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.
Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication. At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of a failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly act of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial, and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, for good or evil; I hope for the former.
In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.
The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work. I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time. I have used my best efforts, with the aid of my eldest son, F. D. Grant, assisted by his brothers, to verify from the records every statement of fact given. The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.
With these remarks I present these volumes to the public, asking no favor but hoping they will meet the approval of the reader.
U. S. GRANT.
MOUNT MACGREGOR, NEW YORK, July 1, 1885.
Grant’s modesty is enough to make one cheer his good luck at being such a natural writer. Why did he write? For the reasons he says–for the money. To wrap things up before he died. To put his perspective on the record.
In his opening sentence Grant implies a whole philosophy of history, and it happens to be the humble one Tolstoy propounds in War and Peace–that life is too fluid and complex to take shape according to our individual choices. Compare, if you will, the narcissistic, unthinking bluster of George W. Bush’s political memoirs, Decision Points. Grant stands, well, not so much like a giant, but like an adult to Bush’s childish mind.
And if that’s not impressive enough, Grant claims no special power inherent in his perspective as General of the Union Army and President of the United States. His memoirs are just one version of history, which may clash with or do injustice to others’s recollections of the same events. He casts the writer’s die and hopes his book ends up doing some good. He admits it might not. All he can claim in the end is that it seemed important to him to write it.
Grant thanks his friends, and he recalls with fondness the help his family gave him. Although he is writing on a deadline imposed by his own approaching death (so was Orwell, as he typed out 1984), Grant unleashes no Sturm und Drang, only quiet decency.
His work done, Grant died one week after finishing his memoirs. He was a great writer.