Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Lincoln Image in American Memory

Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image, by Joshua Zeitz; I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and The Civil War, by Jerome Charyn. 

These two recent books, one non-fiction and the other a fictional speculation on Lincoln’s interior life, remind us that fame is a strange and paradoxical form of survival. What survives of the individual is not his intimate and private life, his own sense of self, but rather a public image of that life that has been constructed by his contemporaries and also by posterity. And yet we always seem to feel the need to recover that private life and to trace its connections to the public man, to link what is common to us all with what we celebrate as exceptional. In American history, this seems to be preeminently the case with a man who was, for most of his life, an obscure prairie lawyer and remained reticent throughout his life about his private life and personal history. Perhaps for the very reason, writers make the attempt over and over again.

Lincoln and his secretaries, John Nicolay (L) and John Hay (R)

One of the attractions of Joshua Zeitz’s Lincoln’s Boys is that we get a unique glimpse of Lincoln’s private life during the years of the Civil War through the letters and reminiscences of his two young White House secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. But the major focus of Lincoln’s Boys is the historical role that John Hay and John Nicolay played in creating the image that, with few revisions, is the one of Lincoln we have today. If not for their monumental biography, we could have been left with an entirely different understanding of Lincoln’s abilities and character. Zeitz explains to us how the popular lectures about Lincoln’s early life given by his law partner, William Herndon, along with the biography published by his friend Ward Hill Lamon, created a romanticized and sometimes unflattering view of Lincoln’s character. It was an image that often seemed to lend support to critical appraisals by some of his political contemporaries of his judgment and of his abilities as a political leader, an unsophisticated and well intentioned common man dealing with matters far above his experience and acumen.

Hay and Nicolay had long planned to make use of their position as privileged witnesses to Lincoln’s presidency to write a comprehensive biography of the man they had served so faithfully. They began their collaboration in 1872 on what would be a 15-year project. Publication of their 10-volume biography of Lincoln began in 1886. Their major achievement was to comprehensively refute those earlier inchoate, and often inaccurate, characterizations of Lincoln and give us a portrait of our sixteenth president as a remarkably adept political leader who led his country through its major historical crisis with conviction, wisdom, and humanity. We learn how they did this in Lincoln’s Boys, a book that shows us that while an historical reputation may be closer to truth or closer to falsehood, above all it is something constructed. However much a person in his lifetime might have sought to fashion his public image, what endures is something that is made by those who write biography and history. 


John Hay soon after his arrival in Washington with Lincoln

The story of Hay and Nicolay’s biography of Lincoln is the main subject of this book, but it comprises only a small portion of the narrative. The major accomplishment of Lincoln’s Boys is the skillful contextualization that Zeitz gives that story. He has a remarkable command of the period, and excels in providing readers with succinct and clear summaries of the major ideas and events that helped to shape Nicolay and Hay’s biography of Lincoln. We get enough of Nicolay and Hay’s personal stories to understand their sometimes differing passions and objectives in presenting their understanding of Lincoln, and Zeitz shows us how both Nicolay and Hay’s ideological and moral beliefs, as well as their understanding of the historical events in which they had participated, evolved over the years. They wrote their biography with integrity and loyalty to Lincoln at a time in America when the historiography of Lincoln’s presidency and of the Civil War was being bent by what historians have dubbed “Reunion Romance,” the revisionist trend of an era that in the interest of Northern and Southern reconciliation minimized the moral and political differences that lay behind the late conflict. Nicolay and Hay would not temporize, and from their unique vantage point as witnesses to Lincoln’s private and public life, they presented an image of Lincoln’s character and achievements that is authoritative and has stood the test of time.

I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War, by Jerome Charyn, is a speculative portrait of Lincoln’s inner life. The narrator of the novel is Lincoln himself, who tells us the largely personal side of his story as he touches on the major events, public and private, of his life.

One of the challenges of writing “historical” fiction is that readers come to it with some expectation that the author will, in the course of things, make us understand why he has chosen to use an historical setting or person in the story he has to tell. Our fictive default is to the contemporary. The more substantial works of historical fiction seem to have ambitions beyond using historical settings as experiential time travel, a trying on of period costume. They often revisit people and events to challenge memories and ideas we have long held sacrosanct by presenting a version of the familiar tale that is replete with deflation and satire. This does not seem to be Charyn’s mode or objective here, although he has used historical material to satiric effect in previous novels.

Fictive art as well, it can be argued, may present an imagined portrait of someone’s interior life that is fuller than the one we could extract from the limited historical facts alone. It is up to the reader to decide with what verisimilitude that has been done.  

Is it possible for a person who mostly reads non-fiction history to read an historical novel? Maybe he can read it with some pleasure for its merits as literature, but he must suspend any expectation of historical edification. That’s hard to do. The problem is that you cannot pretend to read such a novel as history, and yet you are asked to do so in some degree for the sake of understanding the author’s purpose and meaning. For this reader, knowing many of the anecdotes and facts about Lincoln of which Charyn makes use, the frustration was not knowing for sure which of the events he recounts are in fact true and which ones he has, as he admits in an afterward, invented. The “voice” of Charyn’s Lincoln may also be problematic for some readers, for although in some passages--particularly those that end each chapter--his Lincoln speaks in a simple and plain prose that has a unique beauty (it reminded me of Huck Finn’s narration), Charyn has created a voice for his Lincoln that is far too much that of the rube. His Lincoln speaks not only in a colloquial idiom, but has a colloquial frame of mind as well, a presentation of a mental outlook that is hard to reconcile with the demonstrated astuteness, practical sagacity, or expressive sophistication of the Lincoln we meet in the actual historical record.

If it is unfair, however, to be critical of I Am Abraham as history, it is hard not to feel it has some problems as fiction as well. I Am Abraham mistakes biography for plot. We follow Lincoln through selected events of his entire adult life, but the simple recounting of a life story does not of itself have the dynamic and expressive intention of plot. The portrait of George McClellan we get is funny and devastating, and in Charyn’s hands we develop a greater sympathy for and understanding of Mary Lincoln and her trials. Above all, Charyn gives us a portrait of Lincoln’s great humanity, a picture of a man who has a wearied acceptance of the faults of men and a deep sense of the sorrows of their lives. I Am Abraham may remind readers of the sordid human carnival of Melville’s great and sprawling novel, The Confidence Man. I Am Abraham ends with Lincoln narrating to us a pitiable and transcendent vision of humanity as he looks down from the window of Jefferson Davis’s office in the recently captured Confederate capital of Richmond. It is an effective and meaningful ending to a novel in which too often the great events of Lincoln’s life inspire what seems a picaresque and unremarkable interior monologue.

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