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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mon, 24 May 2004 10:22:15 -0500
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The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Candace Scott.



Perry, Mark. _Grant and Twain. The Story of a Friendship that Changed
America._ New York: Random House, 2004. Pp. 294. Cloth, 1.17 x 8.50 x 5.98.
$24.95. ISBN 0-679-964427-0.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Copyright  2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Candace Scott

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.'" [1] 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

[1] SLC to Henry Ward Beecher, 11 Sept. 1885 in _Mark Twain's Letters, Vol.
II_, edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, Harper and Bros., 1917.