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.
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 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.