Lincoln: A Novel
by Gore Vidal
(Random House, 658 pp., $19.95)
Lincoln, Lincoln, burning on
In the nation's pantheon—
A mystery of like degree:
Did he who made Myra make thee?
Gore Vidal compels respect both for his output and his virtuosity, particularly for the latter. To compare his last book Duluth with Lincoln is a startling experience, even though his earlier work has prepared us for such shocks. Duluth was a puckish and willful attack on the business of characterization in conventional novels. Their car lofting itself in a snow drift, two women perish but are transmuted almost at once into characters in other and parallel fictions, one becoming a Marchioness in a Regency romance written by yet another of the chimera of Duluth, the other appearing in the soap opera Duluth and communicating via the screen with inhabitants of the geographic city. Yet even geography is mocked--the city is not the Duluth we know. It has snow, yes, but palm trees and barrios as well, and the abiding enigma of a spaceship which changes its location whenever the captain of police moves the marker pin representing it on the wall map at police headquarters.
Lincoln, by contrast, sets great store on exact and careful characterization. As Vidal intended it to be, the work is literal, solid, and reverent. It is somber, for its subject is somber. Like Vidal himself, observers at the time saw Lincoln's obsession with funny stories as a homely screen behind which the sphinx sheltered his true face from the savageries of the time, savageries which were strangely organic to him and which grew as it were from his person. But the assiduity of Lincoln has a stodginess to it as well, as if the awesome subject has defeated all whimsy. Again, if Burr and 1876 had not prepared the reader, it would be hard to associate this novel with the dancing boy of American letters.
There are three general species of historical novel. One is the bodice-ripper of the mass paperback market. The second is of the kind that provides genuine historical instruction rendered more piquant and given reality through the lives of specific people of the period. The limitation of this group is that the writer can do no more, in fact sometimes does less, for the subject matter than does a good historian or biographer; readers have reacted to this fact by buying popular history and biography and ignoring even the best of historical fiction. The third and best species of historical novel is that which, though set in the past and amply vivifying it, is also a model of the present. It is not particular and peculiar. It is universal and, however well researched, timeless. Vivat Thornton Wilder!
Vidal's Lincoln nearly scrapes into this high category, but that is due to Lincoln himself rather than to Vidal. For Lincoln is still here, behind the right shoulder of every modern President, because Lincoln made the modem Union. As John Hay, Lincoln's secretary, says in the novel's last pages, "He not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country and all of it in his own image." The novel's last sentence expresses Hay's conviction that Lincoln went so far as to will his own murder, to atone for "the great and terrible thing he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation." Though for reasons of this rebirth Lincoln is a modern and perduring President, Lincoln: A Novel is a strangely dated piece of work lacking in the fancy, idiosyncrasy, and flashes of lightning for which we depend on fiction writers, not least on Gore Vidal.
The publishers quote the Lincoln scholar, David Donald, as saying, "It is remarkable how much good history Mr. Vidal has been able to work into his novel. Again and again I have gone to my books to check details that I did not remember and nearly always I find that he is quite correct." It is true that this exactitude is maintained for over six hundred pages and for that reason deserves praise. Vidal has failed, however, to filter historic events through the peculiar sieve of a literary imagination. There is a sense of inhibition in the novel, as if Vidal has chosen his particular way of telling the tale because his reverence for Lincoln has forced it on him. Since Lincoln never takes flight and offers no more enlightenment than a good practical biography, the reader wonders what its reason for existence is.
Throughout the novel, then, distance is maintained. We are told, as a biographer would tell us, that there are madness and rancid dreams in Lincoln as well as a great grandeur of will; thus all the elements suitable to literary complexity are there. But we experience these no more intensely than we would in a history. The impact of the casualty figures from Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and from the brutal campaign leading to the capture of Richmond are described rather than demonstrated. "On July 2nd, Lee tried to break the Union left; and was repulsed. The President was more and more on edge."
We experience in the same way, that is from outside, Lincoln's assassination, the last instants of his consciousness. The novel does add some credible bursts of dialogue, a fictional low life for the pharmacy clerk, David Herold, who would be hanged for his part in the assassination, an occasional brief appearance by characters from Burr and 1876, and a small rearrangement of the movements of some of the major figures. "At the time of Kate Chase's Boxing Day reception," writes Vidal in his afterword, "McClellan had been sick in bed for almost a week; but I needed him at the Chases'. I have not done this sort of thing often,"
Though these are minor devices, though Vidal's Lincoln is examined only by his external features and through the reactions of his secretaries and cabinet and old friends, though the novel has the texture of statuary rather than of living flesh, Lincoln nonetheless provides-- within its self-imposed limits a fascinating and accessible picture of strange and ambiguous Abe.
No President ever came to Washington less auspiciously than Lincoln, for he was inheriting both a White House and a Union in ruins. All the ironies and contradictions of the times and of Lincoln's nature are well exploited by Vidal. Plagued by the threat of the secession of Maryland and Virginia, Lincoln arrives in the pestilential city in disguise and flanked by bodyguards. He has been elected as an honest westerner of simple origins, but even that is a pose, or what is called now image making. "I am sure he split a rail or two in his youth," remarks Elihu Washbourne, "The honest part is true of course. But all the rest was just to get out the vote at home." Abe's bumpkin front is enough, however, to fool William H. Seward, Secretary of State, into the strangely Britannic illusion that he can be "premier to Lincoln's powerless monarch." Considering himself the mystical husband of an inviolable Union, on his inauguration day Lincoln finds himself President of a "mere rump of the disunited states." Inside his tall hat, as Salmon P. Chase notices, he carried an elaborate file of letters and documents, yet he is acute enough to be the first U.S. President to have his inauguration speech printed up in quantity so that the press will not garble it.
He will go to war for the Constitution yet suspend habeas corpus and right of assembly to save Maryland from secession. He does not believe in Seward's Episcopalian God, yet he believes absolutely in that blood-red destiny which will give his life its extraordinarily tragic shape. Though a former railroad engineer waging a modern and technological war, his parables are all of boggy country roads and wagons, of farmers and hogs, He grinds down the wayward sisters of the Confederacy but cannot manage his squat, spendthrift wife. He uses the drawn slaughter of Antietam as a platform from which to liberate the Confederacy's slaves, yet he does not consider the United States a potential home for the black man. "Why would any coloured man want to live in this country, where there is so much hatred of him?" Lincoln asks in support of the Congressional plan to relocate the slaves in Central America. "There are passions too deep for even a millennium to efface."
The major figures of Lincoln's story re dealt with in the spirit of the work--exactly and competently and yet a little woodenly. George B. McClellan is so napoleonic, so full of a dangerous military hubris, that he keeps Lincoln waiting downstairs for an interview. Ulysses S. Grant, who bloodily wears down the Confederacy, passes up the chance to be lionized at the theater with Lincoln and heads home to Illinois to visit his children. William H. Seward is brought only slowly to an awareness that Abe is no hick; he achieves an intimacy symbolized by a simultaneous attempt on his life by the same claque who assassinated Lincoln. Salmon P. Chase, a collector of holographs of the great, sees himself as the next President, and in the meantime is a brilliant Treasurer--the inventor of the green-back--though his domestic economy is always under siege. When he marries off his dazzling daughter, Kate, to rich Governor Sprague of Rhode Island, he believes he has secured himself for life, but Sprague's tradings with the Confederacy bring his Presidential ambitions to grief. Edwin M. Stanton is a crusty, brave, asthmatic, and skeptical Secretary of War. Yet somehow the blood that Vidal puts in the veins of ail these men flows sluggishly.
One of the most annoying things about reviewers is their capacity to ignore the book which has been written and to propose and praise the hypothetical book they would have preferred the author to produce. Yet it does seem that throughout this novel-biography, Vidal has avoided the chance to make a true novel, to let the core of dreams and passions, childhood wounds, adult phobias, burdens and exaltations inform the outer surfaces of events, and so achieve a Lincoln more pungent and memorable, more mysterious yet resolved, more ultimately informative, than any mere annalist could manage.
Thomas Keneally is the author of Schindler's List (Penguin), among other books.
By Thomas Keneally