When ex-President Ulysses S. Grant thought he’d become a millionaire in the stock market, he turned down an offer from Century magazine to write accounts of his wartime experience. But after losing all his money in a Wall Street scam in 1884, an impoverished Grant wrote the editors to see if they were still interested.
They were. Grant wrote four articles, and was about to sign a contract to publish his memoirs as well when his old friend Samuel Clemens stopped by and examined the agreement. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Clemens wrote of the offer, which was the kind “they would have offered to any unknown Comanche Indian whose book they thought might sell 3,000 or 4,000 copies.” As Clemens figured it, Century had paid Grant only $500 for each of the articles, a series that Clemens estimated had earned Century $100,000 from additional subscribers and advertisers.
Clemens told Grant he was establishing his own publishing house and would like to release Grant’s memoirs after he published a book of his own—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Grant started his memoirs knowing he had throat cancer. He worked daily, although he was often in pain or dulled by medication, getting down 275,000 words in less than a year.
The prose was as clear and direct as Grant’s military orders. On Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he wrote, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” The book has been praised as one of the finest memoirs in American political history.
Grant finished the book just a few weeks before he died. In the few months after his death, 250,000 copies of the two-volume set were sold. The only financial success of Grant’s life would come posthumously, earning $450,000 for Grant’s impoverished family.