- Historic Sites
Matters Of Fact
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
THE AUTHOR SHOWS him to us as a large and varied cast of his contemporaries must have seen him, among them his energetic and engaging young assistant, John Hay, already gathering anecdotes for his biography, of the baffling man he calls “the Tycoon” and “the Ancient”; the Secretary of State William H. Seward, who begins the war frankly scornful of the Illinois politician who had unaccountably won the presidential nomination he believed should have been his; Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, and his beautiful daughter, Kate, bound together by their intractable resolve to supplant the Lincolns in the Executive Mansion; David Herold, the dim pharmacist’s apprentice and delivery boy who dreams of being a Confederate spy and becomes instead the hapless accomplice of John Wilkes Booth; and Mary Todd Lincoln herself, whose turbulent personality—by turns loving and vain, courageous and fearful, intelligent and mad—Vidal beautifully conveys.
There are busy subplots involving all these characters and a good many more, and the author has confined his inventive talents this time to embroidering the facts of their lives rather than his hero s: Hay, for example, like a lot of other citizens of Vidal-land, likes to spend his’evenings at a brothel. Several gamy Lincoln stories are again included, but now told in a garrulous rush by a drunken Billy Herndon. We are not necessarily meant to believe them; they can be seen as the lurid result of one puzzled friend s murky speculation about the background of the mysterious man whom neither he nor anyone else fully understands, but whom everyone except Mary at first underestimates. Men like Chase and Gen. George McClellan, too besotted by their own vainglory to alter that first opinion, are destroyed, but Lincoln allows able realists like Seward, self-confident enough to change his mind, to flourish in his shade; some of the most entertaining and persuasive scenes in Lincoln are private talks between the President and the complicated man Hay calls “the premiere,” each delighting in the other s wily appraisal of the conceits of other ambitious men because each understands himself so well.
Before all else, this Lincoln is a subtle politician.
Before anything else, Vidal’s Lincoln is a skilled and subtle politician. So was history s Lincoln, and in most things having to do with him, Vidal hews close to the facts. The most apparently implausible events turn out to be genuine: Mary Lincoln really was knocked unconscious when the seat fell out of her husband s carriage, the screws holding it in place having been loosened by unfriendly hands —perhaps the same hands that on another occasion shot the President s hat from his head; both Lincoln and his wife braved Rebel fire on the ramparts of Fort Stevens and were apparently unperturbed when an officer was felled within three feet of them. No sane novelist would have dared invent such moments, yet the details of Lincoln’s life are so well known that it would have been impossible to leave them out.
Here and there, familiar but long-discredited anecdotes have slipped in—Stephen A. Douglas did not hold his rival’s hat while the new President delivered the first Inaugural, for instance—but most of them are no more misleading than that. Authenticity is not the problem. Exhaustion is: Lincoln is perhaps inevitably swollen with exposition. One by one, the momentous issues of statecraft and soldiering that occupied Lincoln’s mind are wheeled into view—what to do about Fort Suinter, conscription, dissent, McClellan’s immobility, emancipation, and all the rest. Each must be explained before Vidal can show us what Lincoln did about it. Nothing he writes is ever dull, but the sheer number of times the reader is made to stop before he or she can go again gets wearying.
Scholars will undoubtedly comb out additional nits as they read along, and there will always be those who believe history and fiction simply antithetical. But what interested me most about Lincoln is that, even for Gore Vidal, familiarity with the subject bred not contempt but respect and affection. Vidal’s quarrel is not with Lincoln or his struggle to save the Union but with what we have done with that legacy over the intervening years. He seems finally to have come to share Herndon’s belief that Abraham Lincoln was the “central figure of our national history, the sublime type of our civilization”—that all in all he was about as good as we Americans get.