December 29, 2007

Grant's Memoirs

Anyone remotely familiar with the Civil War will have heard of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, supreme commander of the Union forces in the field and eighteenth president of the United States. Not only are they considered a cornerstone work of Civil War history, they are also deemed the finest memoirs ever written by a U.S. president.

The story of how the work came to be is also of interest to bibliophiles. Grant and his family were financially devastated by scandal and failed investments in the years following his presidency. Therefore, in 1884 Grant set out to write his memoirs as a hoped-for mechanism to bring needed funds to the family. Grant began to feel a pain in his throat soon after he began dictating to his secretary. His pain worsened and before long, eating and swallowing became almost impossible. He then learned that he had terminal cancer necessitating that his work pace quicken. In early 1885, Grant signed a deal with his friend Mark Twain to have Charles Webster and Co. publish the books; a firm co-owned by Twain and his niece's husband. That summer, Grant and his family moved to a cottage in the Adirondacks to escape the summer heat. It was there that Grant finished his manuscript, working feverishly day and night in order to beat the reaper’s arrival. Grant died on July 23, 1885, just several days after turning the completed manuscript in to the publisher.

Twain published the Memoirs later that year and sent 16 general agents along with 10,000 door-to-door salesmen all over the country to sell the work. Many of those sales reps were Civil War veterans who wore their old, tattered army uniforms to create sympathy for their beloved general. Twain sincerely appreciated Grant's writing and he praised the Memoirs warmly. Of Grant he wrote, “This is the simple soldier, who, all untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an art surpassing the art of the schools and put into them a something which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching hosts.”

Grant's memoirs won critical acclaim and about 300,000 sets were sold. His widow Julia ultimately received over $400,000 in royalties from the project, thereby restoring the family fortune. As to the books themselves, the Memoirs were offered as a two-volume set with five binding options. They included a fine cloth binding with plain edges at $7.00 a set to a full-leather binding with hand-tooled gilt lettering at, what was then, a whopping $25 a set. In between were three partial-leather options. The least expensive editions were bound in dark green cloth and are today relatively common, though appreciating in price. ABE for instance, currently offers 10 sets ranging from $525 to $1250 in the deluxe morocco leather binding. Personally, I think a cloth-bound set in very nice condition can be had for under $300. Those leather-bound sets however (see picture), are the most desirable and are indeed scarce. All editions contain a typeset facsimile of Grant’s signature, yet many owners mistakenly believe that their copy is indeed signed by the late war hero. Obviously, Grant never lived to see the final product, let alone inscribe any copies of it.

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