The success of Huck Finn, though sufficiently important in itself,
prepared the way for a publishing venture by the side of which it
dwindled to small proportions. One night (it was early in November,
1884), when Cable and Clemens had finished a reading at Chickering Hall,
Clemens, coming out into the wet blackness, happened to hear Richard
Watson Gilder's voice say to some unseen companion:
"Do you know General Grant has actually determined to write his memoirs
and publish them. He has said so to-day, in so many words."
Of course Clemens was immediately interested. It was the thing he had
proposed to Grant some three years previously, during his call that day
with Howells concerning the Toronto consulship.
With Mrs. Clemens, he promptly overtook Gilder and accompanied him to his
house, where they discussed the matter in its various particulars.
Gilder said that the Century Editors had endeavored to get Grant to
contribute to their war series, but that not until his financial
disaster, as a member of the firm of Grant & Ward, had he been willing to
consider the matter. He said that Grant now welcomed the idea of
contributing three papers to the series, and that the promised payment of
five hundred dollars each for these articles had gladdened his heart and
relieved him of immediate anxiety.--[Somewhat later the Century Company,
voluntarily, added liberally to this sum.]
Gilder added that General Grant seemed now determined to continue his
work until he had completed a book, though this at present was only a
Clemens was in the habit of calling on Grant, now and then, to smoke a
cigar with him, and he dropped in next morning to find out just how far
the book idea had developed, and what were the plans of publication. He
found the General and his son, Colonel Fred Grant, discussing some
memoranda, which turned out to be a proposition from the Century Company
for the book publication of his memoirs. Clemens asked to be allowed to
look over the proposed terms, and when he had done so he said:
"General, it is clear that the Century people do not realize the
importance--the commercial magnitude of your book. It is not strange
that this is true, for they are comparatively new publishers and have had
little or no experience with books of this class. The terms they propose
indicate that they expect to sell five, possibly ten thousand copies. A
book from your hand, telling the story of your life and battles, should
sell not less than a quarter of a million, perhaps twice that sum. It
should be sold only by subscription, and you are entitled to double the
royalty here proposed. I do not believe it is to your interest to
conclude this contract without careful thought and investigation. Write
to the American Publishing Company at Hartford and see what they will do
But Grant demurred. He said that, while no arrangements had been made
with the Century Company, he thought it only fair and right that they
should have the book on reasonable terms; certainly on terms no greater
than he could obtain elsewhere. He said that, all things being equal,
the book ought to go to the man who had first suggested it to him.
Clemens spoke up: "General, if that is so, it belongs to me."
Grant did not understand until Clemens recalled to him how he had urged
him, in that former time, to write his memoirs; had pleaded with him,
agreeing to superintend the book's publication. Then he said:
"General, I am publishing my own book, and by the time yours is ready it
is quite possible that I shall have the best equipped subscription
establishment in the country. If you will place your book with my firm--
and I feel that I have at least an equal right in the consideration--I
will pay you twenty per cent. of the list price, or, if you prefer, I
will give you seventy per cent. of the net returns and I will pay all
office expenses out of my thirty per cent."
General Grant was really grieved at this proposal. It seemed to him that
here was a man who was offering to bankrupt himself out of pure
philanthropy--a thing not to be permitted. He intimated that he had
asked the Century Company president, Roswell Smith, a careful-headed
business man, if he thought his book would pay as well as Sherman's,
which the Scribners had published at a profit to Sherman of twenty-five
thousand dollars, and that Smith had been unwilling to guarantee that
amount to the author. --[Mark Twain's note-book, under date of March,
1885, contains this memorandum: "Roswell Smith said to me: 'I'm glad you
got the book, Mr. Clemens; glad there was somebody with courage enough to
take it, under the circumstances. What do you think the General wanted
to require of me?'
"'He wanted me to insure a sale of twenty-five thousand sets of his book.
I wouldn't risk such a guarantee on any book that was ever published.'"
Yet Roswell Smith, not so many years later, had so far enlarged his views
of subscription publishing that he fearlessly and successfully invested a
million dollars or more in a dictionary, regardless of the fact that the
market was already thought to be supplied.]
"General, I have my check-book with me. I will draw you a check now for
twenty-five thousand dollars for the first volume of your memoirs, and
will add a like amount for each volume you may write as an advance
royalty payment, and your royalties will continue right along when this
amount has been reached."
Colonel Fred Grant now joined in urging that matters be delayed, at least
until more careful inquiry concerning the possibilities of publishing
could be made.
Clemens left then, and set out on his trip with Cable, turning the whole
matter over to Webster and Colonel Fred for settlement. Meantime, the
word that General Grant was writing his memoirs got into the newspapers
and various publishing propositions came to him. In the end the General
sent over to Philadelphia for his old friend, George W. Childs, and laid
the whole matter before him. Childs said later it was plain that General
Grant, on the score of friendship, if for no other reason, distinctly
wished to give the book to Mark Twain. It seemed not to be a question of
how much money he would make, but of personal feeling entirely.
Webster's complete success with Huck Finn being now demonstrated, Colonel
Fred Grant agreed that he believed Clemens and Webster could handle the
book as profitably as anybody; and after investigation Childs was of the
same opinion. The decision was that the firm of Charles L. Webster & Co.
should have the book, and arrangements for drawing the contract were
General Grant, however, was still somewhat uneasy as to the terms.
He thought he was taking an unfair advantage in receiving so large a
proportion of the profits. He wrote to Clemens, asking him which of his
two propositions--the twenty per cent. gross-royalty or the seventy per
cent. of the net profit--would be the best all around. Clemens sent
Webster to tell him that he believed the simplest, as well as the most
profitable for the author, would be the twenty per cent. arrangement.
Whereupon Grant replied that he would take the alternative; as in that
case, if the book were a failure, and there were no profits, Clemens
would not be obliged to pay him anything. He could not consent to the
thought of receiving twenty per cent. on a book published at a loss.
Meantime, Grant had developed a serious illness. The humiliation of his
business failure had undermined his health. The papers announced his
malady as cancer of the tongue. In a memorandum which Clemens made,
February 26, 1885, he states that on the 21st he called at the Grant
home, 3 East 66th Street, and was astonished to see how thin and weak the
General looked. He was astonished because the newspaper, in a second
report, had said the threatening symptoms had disappeared, that the
cancer alarm was a false one.
I took for granted the report, and said I had been glad to see that
news. He smiled and said, "Yes--if it had only been true."
One of the physicians was present, and he startled me by saying the
General's condition was the opposite of encouraging.
Then the talk drifted to business, and the General presently said:
"I mean you shall have the book--I have about made up my mind to
that--but I wish to write to Mr. Roswell Smith first, and tell him I
have so decided. I think this is due him."
From the beginning the General has shown a fine delicacy toward
those people--a delicacy which was native to the character of the
man who put into the Appomattox terms of surrender the words,
"Officers may retain their side-arms," to save General Lee the
humiliation of giving up his sword. [Note-book.]
The physician present was Dr. Douglas, and upon Clemens assuming that the
General's trouble was probably due to smoking, also that it was a warning
to those who smoked to excess, himself included, Dr. Douglas said that
General Grant's affliction could not be attributed altogether to smoking,
but far more to his distress of mind, his year-long depression of spirit,
the grief of his financial disaster. Dr. Douglas's remark started
General Grant upon the subject of his connection with Ward, which he
discussed with great freedom and apparent relief of mind. Never at any
time did he betray any resentment toward Ward, but characterized him as
one might an offending child. He spoke as a man who has been deeply
wronged and humiliated and betrayed, but without a venomous expression or
one with revengeful nature. Clemens confessed in his notes that all the
time he himself was "inwardly boiling--scalping Ward--flaying him alive--
breaking him on the wheel--pounding him to a jelly."
While he was talking Colonel Grant said:
"Father is letting you see that the Grant family are a pack of fools, Mr.
The General objected to this statement. He said that the facts could be
produced which would show that when Ward laid siege to a man he was
pretty certain to turn out to be a fool; as much of a fool as any of the
Grant family. He said that nobody could call the president of the Erie
Railroad a fool, yet Ward had beguiled him of eight hundred thousand
dollars, robbed him of every cent of it.
He cited another man that no one could call a fool who had invested in
Ward to the extent of half a million. He went on to recall many such
cases. He told of one man who had come to the office on the eve of
departure for Europe and handed Ward a check for fifty thousand dollars,
"I have no use for it at present. See what you can do with it for me."
By and by this investor, returning from Europe, dropped in and said:
"Well, did anything happen?"
Ward indifferently turned to his private ledger, consulted it, then drew
a check for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and handed it over,
with the casual remark:
"Well, yes, something happened; not much yet--a little too soon."
The man stared at the check, then thrust it back into Ward's hand.
"That's all right. It's plenty good enough for me. Set that hen again,"
and left the place.
Of course Ward made no investments. His was the first playing on a
colossal scale of the now worn-out "get rich quick" confidence game.
Such dividends as were made came out of the principal. Ward was the
Napoleon of that game, whether he invented it or not. Clemens agreed
that, as far as himself or any of his relatives were concerned, they
would undoubtedly have trusted Ward.
Colonel Grant followed him to the door when he left, and told him that
the physicians feared his father might not live more than a few weeks
longer, but that meantime he had been writing steadily, and that the
first volume was complete and fully half the second. Three days later
the formal contract was closed, and Webster & Co. promptly advanced.
General Grant ten thousand dollars for imminent demands, a welcome
arrangement, for Grant's debts and expenses were many, and his available
resources restricted to the Century payments for his articles.
Immediately the office of Webster & Co. was warm with affairs.
Reporters were running hot-foot for news of the great contract by which
Mark Twain was to publish the life of General Grant. No publishing
enterprise of such vast moment had ever been undertaken, and no
publishing event, before or since, ever received the amount of newspaper
comment. The names of General Grant and Mark Twain associated would
command columns, whatever the event, and that Mark Twain was to become
the publisher of Grant's own story of his battles was of unprecedented
The partners were sufficiently occupied. Estimates and prices for vast
quantities of paper were considered, all available presses were
contracted for, binderies were pledged exclusively for the Grant book.
Clemens was boiling over with plans and suggestions for distribution.
Webster was half wild with the tumult of the great campaign.
Applications for agencies poured in.
In those days there were general subscription agencies which divided the
country into districts, and the heads of these agencies Webster summoned
to New York and laid down the law to them concerning the, new book. It
was not a time for small dealings, and Webster rose to the occasion. By
the time these men returned to their homes they had practically pledged
themselves to a quarter of a million sets of the Grant Memoirs, and this
estimate they believed to be conservative.
Webster now moved into larger and more pretentious quarters. He took a
store-room at 42 East 14th Street, Union Square, and surrounded himself
with a capable force of assistants. He had become, all at once, the most
conspicuous publisher in the world.