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)
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
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.