(Host) A new book explores the surprising connection between two American icons and commentator David Moats says it’s worth reading.
(Moats) A new book describes the friendship of two of the great figures of American history. It’s called “Grant and Twain.”
Everyone knows about Mark Twain and his great entertaining personality, his humor and his books. We also know about Ulysses S. Grant, the general who won the Civil War by doing what had to be done, which was fight and kill.
It so happened that I got interested in Grant some time ago when I read a surprising comment: Gertrude Stein, of all people, called Grant’s “Memoirs” an American classic. That was weird enough that I found the Memoirs and read them. Gertrude Stein was right. Here was honest, unvarnished storytelling by a modest, truthful man.
The story behind the story was just as interesting. While Grant was working on his Memoirs, Twain was finishing up his greatest book, “Huckleberry Finn.” Twain had let the book sit for about 16 years because he didn’t know what to do with Huck and Jim as they floated down the river.
Before finishing the book Twain took a journey down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans. The Civil War was long over. The world of the river had changed since Twain was a riverboat pilot. To finish the book Twain had to delve deep into the South again, to reacquaint himself with all that was hateful about slavery and its aftermath, and what it did to people, black and white. He had to look in the face the central problem of American life, which was race.
There was a moment in Grant’s life when he saw this problem, too. He had defeated the Confederates at Chattanooga, and he was watching thousands of former slaves pass by. They were called contrabands, and they had attached themselves to his army. He was struck by the sight of them, and even though he had spent his life among slaves, he said, “I don’t know these people.”
It was the kind of straightforward, honest statement that drew Grant and Twain together. Grant also had the kind of wry humor that we associate with Twain and with Lincoln. Describing his early education, he said, “They taught me that a noun was the name of a person, place or thing so often that I came to believe it.”
The great story about Grant’s Memoirs was that he sat down to write them in part because he had been ruined financially after his presidency. He was also dying of throat cancer. He needed to finish writing before he died to provide for his family after he was gone.
It was a horrible few months, as he grew weaker and weaker, wracked by coughing fits, but working for hours each day. Within days of setting down his pen, he died. The writing alone had kept him alive.
Twain was the publisher of Grant’s Memoirs. And so it happened that the great novel that explored the violence and the innocence of American life was published almost simultaneously with the great nonfiction work that described our greatest war.
The book titled “Grant and Twain” helps us see how literature happens – by historical accident and personal friendship, by the unique human circumstances that turn an artistic vision into enduring truths.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pultizer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke to us from studios at Middlebury College.