Special Collections owns two first edition copies of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a narrative that summarizes Grant’s life as a series of extreme swings in fortune from failed farmer to Commanding General of the Union Army. The events leading up to and surrounding its publication were equally dramatic, forming a worthy tale in its own right.
After two terms as president a restless Ulysses S. Grant embarked on a savings-draining two-and-a-half-year tour around the world with his family. Upon his return to New York he started the brokerage firm Grant and Ward with his son Buck and business associate Ferdinand Ward. Unbeknownst to the financially naive Grants, Ward turned the firm into an elaborate Ponzi-style scheme; by the spring of 1884 the business had collapsed, leaving Grant publicly humiliated and in serious debt.
That same spring Grant was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Bankrupt with months left to live, he was approached by the Century Company’s senior editor with an offer to publish his memoirs. Grant’s longtime friend Mark Twain caught wind of the pending deal and paid Grant a visit on the day he was officially to commit to the Century Company. Twain read over the contract and was appalled by the proposed ten percent royalty. He immediately offered to more than double it if Grant signed with his publishing house instead. Grant initially felt obliged to honor the contract with the Century Company because they had asked him first, but Twain reminded him that he had been begging Grant to publish his life story for years. This sentiment along with Twain’s plan to market and sell the book by subscription swayed Grant to sign with Twain’s publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Company.
Grant spent the next year writing his memoirs, producing as many as fifty pages a day, while Twain began taking advance orders. Newspapers openly speculated about the book, Grant’s finances, and his deteriorating health. Twain capitalized on this public interest by sending out over ten thousand canvassers to sell the book door-to-door. He told book agents to hire Civil War veterans whenever possible and have them wear their old uniforms, making them harder to turn away. Each canvasser was given a thirty-seven-page manual entitled How to Introduce the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which included sales tactics such as assuring the customer that the value of the volumes would only increase with time, playing to their sense of patriotism, and reminding them of the dire financial situation of Grant’s family. Sales began in March and by May sixty thousand two-volume sets had been sold.
Grant finished his manuscript on July 20, 1885 and passed away three days later. Published that December, the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was instantly successful. The first check his widow Julia received was for $200,0000, the largest royalty check ever paid to an author up to that time. She ultimately was paid royalties of about $420,000 (more than $11 million today) from the 350,000 copies sold.