Ulysses S. Grant




The Saturday Review, July 9, 1955


Grant's Personal Memoirs (1885) are considered a classic of American literature. There is no doubt that it is the greatest book ever written by a former U. S. President. As the primary first-person narrative of the Civil War, it has been scrutinized, celebrated and praised, but never damned. Grant's book has been spared the attacks that have been directed at him in other areas of his life. Even his most vocal critics find it hard to denigrate this simple, yet elegant document. Written while dying of throat cancer, the torturous creation of this work is a great human story, as inspiring as anything Grant ever did on the battlefield.

Below are some observations about Grant's Memoirs, and the common thread is an admiration for Grant's literary style: precise, economical and interspersed with a dry wit. Dismiss the stories that Mark Twain or Grant's literary secretary secretly wrote the book while the General sat back inert. His style is instantly familiar and utterly unique. His military orders, presidential papers and personal correspondence possess the identical style as his book. It cannot be copied by another, even a writer as gifted as Mark Twain. The handwritten manuscript of the Memoirs is in the Library of Congress, which should prove once and for all who really wrote the book. Here are the opinions of some distinguished critics regarding the General's Memoirs:

Mark Twain: I had been comparing the memoirs with Caesar's Commentaries... I was able to say in all sincerity that the same high merits distinguished both books - clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech. General Grant was just a man, just a human being, just an author...The fact remains and cannot be dislodged that General Grant's book is a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece. There is no higher literature than these modest, simple Memoirs. Their style is at least flawless, and no man can improve upon it.

Louis A. Coolidge: Writing was not his trade, but it was astonishing how he could make a story of human interest as easily as he had written military orders. He had the faculty of narrative to an unusual degree, for all his life he was an entertaining talker, at times monopolizing conversations with friends... the wit in the book was frequent and had a large touch of genius in it. It is one of those "can't put down" books.

Edmund Wilson: Grant's Memoirs are a unique expression of the national character... The book conveys Grant's dynamic force and the definitiveness of his personality. Perhaps never has a book so objective in form seemed so personal in every line. The tempo is never increased, but the narrative, once we get into the war, seems to move with the increasing momentum that the soldier must have felt in the field. Somehow, despite its sobriety, it communicates the spirit of the battles themselves and makes it possible to understand how Grant won them.

William Conant Church: Grant's Memoirs remain as a testimony to his skill as a writer. They supercede any other such work, and surprised critics with their high literary merit and their mastery of graphic details. The final chapters were written on pads held in his lap, his nerves quivering with the agonizing pains that gave no promise of relief. Grant's book is clear evidence of the strength of his affections, the clearness and force of his intellect, and the invincible determination of purpose triumphing over death.

George S. Boutwell: Grant's book is one of the great books ever written and will stand the test of time. The man in General Grant is in all of his writings and no other man could have stood in his place. As he thought, so he spoke and wrote. There was no art, no subtlety, no duplicity in the man, and there is none of this in his writing. His book will live with the history of this country and is as enduring as the English language.

William Sherman: Other books of the war will be forgotten, mislaid, dismissed. Millions will read Grant's Memoirs and remember them. His expertise as a writer does not surprise me, for I have read hundreds of his letters and know too well his style and flawless effort at turning a phrase.

William S. McFeely: A cynic would say that without Donelson, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and, of course, Appomattox, there could have been no book. He would be right. But neither would there have been a book - a good strong book - without Grant's magnificent eye and his clear rendering of what he saw into words. All his life he has been struggling to get his story out, to get his life laid out before himself and before the world.. now... he succeeded.

Bruce Catton: Although the manuscript pages Grant left may show the most excruciating physical suffering, the book itself has a glow and shine that could only have come from a contented spirit. In its essence, the book is a record of what Grant saw when he looked back on things from his deathbed, and apparently what he saw was very good.

Thomas Nast: As an intimate personal friend of General Grant, it was initially hard for me to read his book, but his words bring forth his sprit, his humanity, his goodness. He wrote as he talked, simple, unadorned, manly. He was the most complete and masculine person I ever knew, and his book is the most complete book I have ever read.

Chauncey Depew: General Grant's book is almost never boring, in fact, I don't recall a boring portion or paragraph. To sustain a narrative of hundreds of pages, over two large volumes, without ever boring the reader is quite a feat. General Grant could sometimes in personal intercourse be so shy as to appear cold or even rude. When I knew him better, I knew this was just his impossible bashfulness. His reserve is in the book, but never detracts. What a monument!

Gore Vidal: It is simply not possible to read Grant's Memoirs without realizing that the author is a man of first-rate intelligence. As president, he made it his policy to be cryptic and taciturn, partly not to be bored by politicians and partly not to give the game away... his book is a classic.



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