The following is a guest blog post by Stephen Cushman, author of The Generals’ Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today. In this insightful book, Stephen Cushman considers Civil War generals’ memoirs as both historical and literary works, revealing how they remain vital to understanding the interaction of memory, imagination, and the writing of American history.
Why did Mark Twain’s New York firm, Charles L. Webster and Company, buck the postwar trend of publishing Civil War memoirs from both sides, as his major competitors did? Profit mattered to Twain, but profit-motive alone cannot explain why he stuck closely to United States generals for all seven titles in the Great War Library published by Webster. Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs (1885-86) launched the series with a bestseller, but the later books by or about Samuel Crawford, George Armstrong Custer, and Winfield Scott Hancock (all 1887) did not guarantee greater profits than Twain could have realized by soliciting memoirs from Confederates Edward Porter Alexander, John B. Gordon, Jubal A. Early, James Longstreet, or John Singleton Mosby, all of whom had books to come. In approaching these former Confederates, Twain could have had the advantage of playing his fellow-southerner card.
We know Mark Twain held that card. On February 11, 1901, at Carnegie Hall, he delivered introductory remarks at a benefit for Lincoln Memorial University, established in 1897 in Harrogate, Tennessee. At the benefit, which coincided with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s ninety-second birthday, Twain opened by proclaiming, “I was born and reared in a slave state; my father was a slave owner; and in the Civil War I was a second lieutenant in the Confederate service,” After a pause in the theatrical style of his early model, the humorist Artemus Ward, he added slyly, “For a while.” Twain’s mocked his two-week service with the Marion Rangers, an irregular pro-Confederate band raised in Marion County, Missouri, in the short piece “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” (1885). More to the point here is the move he made next in 1901 remarks at the benefit in Tennessee. “We of the South were not ashamed,” he continued. Then, asserting his sectional identity, he waved the Stainless Banner as vigorously as any former Confederate could have wished: “like the men of the North, we were fighting for flags we loved; and when men fight for these things, and under these convictions, with nothing sordid to tarnish their cause, that cause is holy, the blood spilled for it is sacred, the life that is laid down for it is consecrated.” By the end of his remarks, however, the shape-shifting Twain was reassuring his audience he was not an unreconstructed rebel; he believed firmly in reconciliation: “The old wounds are healed; you and we are brothers again.”
Had he solicited books from high-ranking Confederates, Mark Twain could have adjusted his mix of Lost Cause rhetoric with reconciliation rhetoric to suit a particular prospect. But he approached none of them. Even more revealing, he does not seem to have read many Confederate writers or owned their books. He did own John Scott’s Partisan Life with Col. John S. Mosby, published by Harper and Brothers in 1867, and in 1905 he asked his secretary, Isabel Lyon, to search his recently moved library for Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee by His Son, Captain Robert E. Lee, published in New York by Doubleday, Page and Company in 1904. But Lyon noted in her journal that she did not find it, and we have no evidence he had read the book before it went missing. Twain’s library included Julian Ralph’s Dixie; or, Southern Scenes and Sketches, published in 1896, also by Harper and Brothers, and in the notebook he kept during his Mississippi River trip of April and May 1882, he jotted, “Gen Dick Taylor’s book,” apparently because someone, perhaps his publisher and traveling companion, James Osgood, mentioned Richard Taylor’s Destruction and Reconstruction; yet whether he later owned or read the book is unclear.
For a self-proclaimed son of the Lost Cause, this is not an impressive record. It raises suspicion about the sincerity of Mark Twain’s Confederate affiliation, which has the mark of a costume donned for the occasion of Lincoln’s birthday. By contrast, Twain’s loyalty to Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant was authentic and staunch, and this loyalty may account in part for the all-Union booklist that followed. When he pursued Grant, persuading him to break off negotiations with the Century Company and sign a contract with Webster in February 1885, his primary motive may have been mercenary, on both his own behalf and that of the former president fleeced of all his money by a Wall Street swindle. But after Grant died of cancer in July 1885, and after his posthumously published memoirs conquered the Civil War memory market, Mark Twain knew Grant had given him more than money. He had given him a major work of American literature. Whatever Twain might have pretended in public performance from behind a podium on a particular occasion, over the course of his publishing career the man of letters proved an unswerving literary loyalist.
Stephen Cushman is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia.