Eric Bergeson: General Grant’s throat and a tonsillectomy
In 1885, Gen. U. S. Grant was dying of throat cancer. The former president was broke. Absent Social Security, which didn’t yet exist, he knew that his wife Julia would be left destitute when he died.
Gen. Grant’s friend Mark Twain was aware of the great man’s financial troubles. He also knew from reading Grant’s letters that the former general had a gift with the pen.
So, Twain offered to publish Grant’s memoirs of the Civil War if the General could just get down to writing them.
Fighting constant pain and a feeling of being choked, Grant wrote at a prodigious rate of 50 pages per day. Twain edited, but very lightly. The book was in final form from the beginning.
Much of the book was written while Grant was high on cocaine, a pain killer and stimulant which has since been made illegal.
Propped up with pillows, unable to dictate due to the loss of his voice, Grant finished the final chapter of the two-volume work in long-hand. He died five days later.
Twain swung into action. Realizing that Grant’s death would unleash a massive wave of interest in the general’s Civil War career, the author built an army of 10,000 agents to canvas the nation and sell Grant’s book for encyclopedia-like prices. The target audience: Civil War veterans who wanted to finally know what was going on in the minds at the top as they had suffered on the field of battle.
Inside the front cover, Twain had placed a handwritten letter that looked as if it were a personal note from General Grant to his troops.
Mark Twain knew his country. Not only was he this nation’s first great writer, but when he wanted to, he could put together a slam-bang three-ring-circus marketing campaign worthy of P. T. Barnum himself.
Grant’s memoirs sold like hotcakes. The first royalty check Mark Twain wrote to Julia Grant was for the princely sum of $450,000, enough to provide a retirement fit for a first lady and the wife of a great general.
The story would end there if Grant’s writing hadn’t been so extraordinary. Treading a diplomatic minefield as he described events still remembered by others living, Grant deftly gave credit to others where it was due. Unlike the typical overblown writing of the time, Grant’s prose was elegant, yet to the point and very personal.
Like Dwight D. Eisenhower, another great general and president who knew how to wield a pen, much of Grant’s humor arose from his cynical view of military bureaucracy.
But Grant’s true achievement was to write an interesting account which gained the respect of those who fought with him, as well an account accurate and insightful enough to be used as a resource by historians yet today.
I have been thinking about Gen. Grant a lot this week.
After years of fighting chronic tonsil episodes, I finally decided to get the beasts removed last Monday. I was warned up front that tonsil surgery in adults is a completely different animal than tonsil removal in children and that I should set aside weeks for recovery. Yes, weeks.
Oh, those doctors, always exaggerating to get your attention. No solid foods for two weeks? Silliness.
The first few days after surgery weren’t too bad. Narcotics helped. Jello is the food of the gods. So are popsicles.
But then it all stopped working. I started to feel like Gen. Grant. I must be dying of this. I wondered: How am I going to write this column without the aid of cocaine?
Fortunately, we have this thing called the Internet today where people who have something to complain about can find others who are complaining, too. Good thing we didn’t have it during the Civil War!
According to the complainers, of which I found hundreds, I am doing very well with my tonsil surgery. It is normal for the pain to peak 6-10 days out. It is normal for you to feel like you’re going to die. It is normal for your ears to hurt out to their tips. It is normal not to eat anything solid for two weeks, not due to doctor’s orders, but simply because it hurts too much.
I even ran across several mothers my age who reported that they would far prefer another childbirth to an adult tonsillectomy!
Boy, am I glad I didn’t read those forums before surgery. I would have never done it. As it is, I know that within a couple of weeks, I will be free of tonsil trouble for my remaining days.
Now, if I could only pull a Grant and use the throat pain, as well as the accompanying medicines, to produce 50 pages per day of a book that will eventually sell millions!