How Presidential Memoirs Work

Assisted Recall

Although he is not often thought of as a great president, Ulysses S. Grant is noted for the manner in which he relayed the story of his early life and his participation in the Civil War. The text begins with a rather brief discussion of his birth, childhood and early schooling. From there, he takes the reader from West Point to the Mexican War to life in California to Shiloh to the campaign against and the eventual surrender of Vicksburg. In writing his memoir, Grant set a good standard of relying heavily on papers, correspondence and official reports he had written during the war, along with the assistance of several researchers. To date, Grant's is arguably the most well-known, well-read and well-respected of the presidential memoirs. (Technically, it falls just short of being a full-blown presidential memoir, in that Grant passed away prior to writing about his term in office.) Most people agree that the story surrounding the writing of Grant's memoir is almost as good a tale as the memoir itself.

In his own words, on the topic of writing a memoir, Grant was "determined never to do so." But, because a failed business venture left Grant in dire financial straights, he was forced to reconsider. "The Century," a publication that was presenting a series on the Civil War, asked Grant to write a few articles (for which he would be paid) about the various battles in which he participated. The article request quickly turned into an offer of a book deal. One of Grant's friends, who was a writer himself, heard about the book deal and informed Grant that the proposed financial arrangement wasn't what it could be. The author and friend -- a man named Samuel Clemens (we know him best as Mark Twain) -- had recently started his own publishing house with his nephew, Charles L. Webster. Able to make a better offer, Webster and Clemens won Grant away from "The Century." In the end, over 300,000 copies of Grant's memoir were sold, providing Grant's family with the financial security he was hoping for and then some. Reportedly, Grant's widow was paid a record sum in royalties for that time, eventually receiving in excess of $400,000.