- Historic Sites
Matters Of Fact
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
WHEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S wartime secretaries, John Hay and John G. Nicolay, serialized their life of the President in Century magazine in 1885, Lincoln’s old friend and law partner William H. Herndon did not like it. The articles were too reverential, he thought, too Republican, too everlastingly long. But worse than that, he added, the authors “handle things with silken gloves & a ‘cammel hair pencil’: they do not write with an iron pen.”
It seems clear that when Gore Vidal set out to write his big new novel, Lincoln , nearly a century later, he planned to wield the sort of ruthless weapon Herndon had in mind. Vidal’s astonishing output of eighteen novels, a volume of short stories, five plays, and five books of essays and criticism already included three historical novels— Washington, D.C., Burr , and 1876 —in which he offered his elegantly rendered but distinctly polemical version of our past, and in Burr , the best-known of these, he had managed to engrave a startling portrait of Thomas Jefferson as so unrelievedly untrustworthy an opportunist that Dumas Malone, Jefferson’s biographer, denounced the book as not merely inaccurate but downright “pernicious.”
Then, two years ago, on the occasion of Lincoln s birthday but not precisely in celebration of it, Vidal took time out from his research to dash off a short essay called “A Note on Abraham Lincoln” for the Los Angeles Times that seemed to imply that he planned the same sort of fate for the Emancipator. In it he sought to separate the “real Lincoln” from what he called the “Sandburg-Mount Rushmore Lincoln … a solemn gloomy cuss, who speaks only in iambic penameter, a tear forever at the corner of his eye—the result no doubt, of being followed around by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which keeps humming ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’…”
The official Lincoln, he continued, “is warm, gentle, shy, modest … everything a great man is supposed to be in Sandburg-land but never is in life.” By contrast, Vidal wrote, the authentic Lincoln was “cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant,” profoundly ambitious and persuaded of his own greatness, without intimate friends, sometimes inconsistent, ambivalent about civil rights for blacks and always less interested in ending slavery than in perpetuating the Union.
None of this will unsettle anyone who has read any book published about Lincoln since Carl Sandburg completed his six rhapsodic volumes in 1939—or anyone who has kept up with this magazine, for that matter. (By now Abraham Lincoln may be the most demythologized man in our history, or in anyone else’s.) But it was evidently all still news to Vidal, and in his initial breathless iconoclasm, he trotted out some of the more colorful stories about Lincoln collected by Herndon, whose own research into his partner’s past was tireless but indiscriminate. Thus, Los Angeles readers learned that Lincoln had been so hostile to Christianity in his youth that he wrote a lawyer’s brief against it in a “small book called ‘Infidelity.’” (With stunning prescience, an acquaintance is supposed to have burned the only copy sometime before 1837 so that its existence would not endanger Lincoln’s subsequent political career.) Vidal also repeated the more scurrilous tale that Lincoln had contracted syphilis during what Herndon called a “devilish passion” with an Illinois girl, infected his wife with it, and through her their children, and so came to feel responsible both for the deaths of two of his sons and for his wife’s irrationality—a circumstance, Vidal added, which, if true, rendered his “fits of melancholy … understandable—and unbearably tragic.”
Since Vidal was willing to retell dubious stories like these—there is only hearsay evidence for the first; the second was demolished by scholars more than a quarter of a century ago—a large part of the Lincoln Establishment has been hunkered down ever since, waiting for his finished novel and fearing the worst.
THEY CAN RELAX . Vidal has done a lot more reading. His Lincoln is very like their own. The story he has chosen to tell is familiar, if enormously ambitious, nothing less than the entire Presidency, beginning with Lincoln’s ignominious arrival at Washington in 1861 when he wore a disguise to thwart phantom assassins, and ending four crowded years later with his visit to Ford’s Theatre and his murder by a real one. Lincoln himself is always at center stage, and almost always in the company of others. Vidal is shrewd enough to know that imaginative ventures into Lincoln’s mind rarely convince. Even during his lifetime no one knew all that went on there; Lincoln was pretty much what a frustrated Herndon once called him—#8220;the most secretive—reticent—shut-mouthed man that ever lived”—and his instinct always to keep his own counsel became one of his most telling tactical weapons; his adversaries rarely knew which way he would jump.