Every now and then, I decide that it’s time to settle into a long, involved, and dense novel, just to counteract any time that I have spent on the Internet and being distracted by shiny things. Last summer, it was The Count of Monte Cristo (qv). This time, I’ve gone for Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which is only half as long as the unabridged Count. Both books I would characterise as long, but eminently rewarding, slogs, and both books have more than enough of a compelling interest to penetrate my increasingly thick dura mater and drive me away from detective stories (for a short while, at least).
Despite having been educated largely in America, I can’t say that I knew much of anything of Abraham Lincoln. That is no doubt due to the fact that in the 70s and 80s, when I completed much of my schooling, public school curricula still bent in the direction of a legendary and cinematically simplistic view of history (where any history was taught at all). Surprisingly, battles bored the younger me (now, they terrify me), so the litany of learning around the American Civil War (Bull Run, Second Bull Run, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Atlanta, et cetera) didn’t do much for me. We were not taught about the regular and disastrous tactical failures of the Union Army under Southron-sympathising generals like McClellan in the early years of the war, nor of how close many of those battles came to completely undermining Northern confidence in the Greenback dollars that seem to have largely funded the war. And we certainly didn’t learn anything other than the notion that old “Honest Abe” (who, if we take Vidal at face value, was anything but) fought a war to free the slaves and enshrine the glorious promise of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution in a shining new reality.
Of course, mature historians scoff at this notion, and so does Vidal. But it is the naiveté of countless readers, like myself mediocrely educated through no real fault of their own except that they were not born into better schools, that the novelist must overcome in weaving his portrait of the Great American President. The result is a fascinating journey through the life of one of America’s best-loved and least understood Presidents.
If you have one handy, take a copper cent (or, if it was minted after 1982, a mostly zinc cent with a thin sheen of copper washed over it) out of your pocket, or a five dollar bill out of your wallet (the older design is better, for on the new design Lincoln seems almost to smirk at us with a very modern mien, and Lincoln, I don’t believe, would ever have stooped so low as to smirk, not even for one of his precious humorous stories), and look at it for a moment. Look at the face there, and try to cast yourself beyond the mere fables that you learned at school (some of which have their roots in the mythology built at the time of Lincoln’s 1860 election), and look for the man himself. That is what Gore Vidal has attempted in his book. However, because Vidal has taken the precaution of writing “A Novel” after the word “Lincoln,” the obvious caveat is that Lincoln should not be taken as a literal work of history.
What is the difference? Certainly, an historical novelist still has a number of liberties not possessed by the historian. The historian is obliged, by the nature of his work, to report and analyse only those things which are supported by reasoned argument, by recorded fact from reliable sources, and those suppositions supported by archaeology and established history (this is what ensures that people like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Karl Rove are neither historians nor writers of history: none of their work passes the most basic tests for intellectual rigor or academic probity, never mind honesty). A novelist, in the meantime, is free to imagine what might have been (in such a way that the conjecture is not supported by established facts), and the novelist may even alter details, small or large, depending on how they best suit the story that he wishes to tell. In the case of Lincoln, Vidal states candidly that he has invented a few characters, moved a few historical places, and even created a “backstory” for one or two minor characters whose lives are not otherwise known.
Despite these inventions (which fit seamlessly into the narrative), Vidal has written a novel which brings a history to life. Set firmly between the February, 1861 arrival of Lincoln in Washington, D.C. and the President’s assassination in April of 1865, with a brief coda involving Lincoln’s former secretary, John Hay, in 1867, the novel does not fall into the trap of focusing the action on any one character, or on the events and major battles of the American Civil War itself. Instead, Vidal paints a broad panorama of the events of the Lincoln Presidency, focusing on the people around Lincoln, as well as the conspirators and “secesh” sympathisers who would do him harm. Civil War “buffs” hoping for a blow-by-blow recounting of the great (and by “great” I mean brutal, horrible, and savage) battles of the war will be disappointed, as the focus is largely elsewhere. And sometimes, Vidal’s style is almost too stream of consciousness: as he flows from one event to the next, sometimes the connections between characters and their actions are rather jarring, so much so that I wondered if the editors would not have served the reader better by adding the traditional asterisk between transitional paragraphs.
But these are fairly minor complaints, given the rich world that Vidal paints for us to inhabit. A working knowledge of the geography of Washington, or a map, will be helpful to readers, and a larger map of the immediate region would not go amiss in picturing vividly why Washington was called a “Southern city.” The fact that it was a city basically built in the mud in a festering mire is not as evident to 20th and 21st century visitors, but the unhealthfulness of the place seems highlighted by the death of Lincoln’s son Willie, which is truly one of the more heartbreaking moments in the book. Yet it is a town filled with inns and public houses and restaurants and whorehouses and theatres and, of course, the incomplete monuments to the American self-conception of Democracy, including the incomplete Capitol dome and Washington monument. In a sense, in reading this book, it becomes clear that in the 1860s as in the 2010s, American Democracy is very much a faltering work in progress. Fortunately for readers who have difficulty imagining these things, contemporary photographs of Lincoln’s Washington are not hard to find on the internet (this selection from the Library of Congress includes more images than just the 1860s, interested readers can narrow their focus just by putting “Washington D.C. 1860s photographs” into their search engine of choice).
The cast of characters features some of the best-known names of this period of American history, including not merely Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, but Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward, John Hay, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield… the list goes on and on. These people are presented with their foibles and quirks and failings intact: Chase is depicted as a myopic collector of collector of autographs and ardent abolitionist, Grant as a part-time drunk whose bouts of whiskey are controlled by his wife, and Hay as the long-suffering but loyal secretary to a President whom he admires and is sometimes confounded by. Mrs. Lincoln’s peculiar madness, about which there is still some uncertainty, and her suffering from headaches which sound as though they were the most savage sort of migraines, combined with her seemingly outrageous spending and running up of bills to decorate and refurbish both herself and the creaking hulk of the White house, serve to humanise her to a degree, but also make her a somewhat trying character, as one supposes she would have been in reality. Lincoln himself is a complex man, who is capable both of great wit and great melancholy, whose passion for asserting his vision of the United States as “indivisible” at any price is balanced by a love of Shakespeare and the humourists of the day (anyone else wonder who Petroleum V. Nasby was? then start here at Wikipedia). Also present are and active in the narrative are the Secessionists and their sympathisers, who variously spy, attempt to assassinate Lincoln, and connive with political supporters. The best fleshed-out of these is the ill-fated David Herold, for whom Vidal is obliged to invent a plausible “low-life” (as the author termed it) that leads the young Confederate sympathizer into the orbit of a famous actor doomed to become one of history’s most famous assassins, the actor John Wilkes Booth.
For a novel to which every schoolchild should still know the outcome, Vidal has nevertheless managed to weave a masterful tale out of a painful history. He depicts Lincoln as a man bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, who by turns expressed himself in anecdotes and stories, then in carefully, agonizingly constructed speeches. One of the best moments of the book comes when Vidal recounts the Gettysburg Address, and uses the text taken down in shorthand by a journalist present at the speech, rather than the accepted published version. The variations between the two texts make the incident feel all the more immediate and poignant. If the reader has any historical interest at all, they will feel themselves driven to explore more of this history. If not, they will still enjoy Gore Vidal’s presentation of the story of one of America’s best-recognised but perhaps least understood Presidents. In an election year or in any other, this is a story that deserves wide and continued fame and attention. Five stars. Highly recommended.
Interestingly, for those who wish to further follow the argument of “history” versus “novel”, a long debate was played out between a historian, Richard Current, publicist Harold Holzer, and Vidal, shortly before the television mini-series adaptation of Lincoln was due to air, in August of 1988. Although almost thirty years old, this discussion is a fascinating look not only at the work of writing historical fiction, versus the writing of history, but it is a fascinating glimpse into a full-throated battle between Vidal and two critics. If you wish to settle in for a long read, the full text is at this link, which connects to an archived segment at the New York Review of Books. (Personally, I’d print the thing out and highlight it, because you’re in for a bumpy ride, complete with Vidal-esque flourishes and highlights all over the place. It’s good fun; a nice way to while away an hour or two, instead of wasting your time staring at something moronic on social media. Enjoy.)
Reviewed 25 August 2016.