Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On why, having read only 59 pages of Gore Vidal's Lincoln, I returned it to my local library

On the scale of Abraham Lincoln fandom, my interest in the man wouldn't even register. A search on "Abraham Lincoln" at Amazon, for example, returns 44,402 results, of which I've read maybe four. But I am a native Illinoisan, and Lincoln is an endlessly compelling subject: despite those 44,000 volumes, his interior life remains almost completely obscure, and his achievements as a leader are so profound as to almost demand that we keep attempting to plumb that obscurity. What made him the man he was?

That sense of Lincoln's of essential mystery was what drove me to Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1983). How better to get into Lincoln's head than to be freed from strict accountability to history? Good historical novels, after all, can succeed as both history and fiction, illuminating and giving character to the bare facts of history; the fictional depictions of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace and the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge, for example, have a human weight and immediacy that few historical accounts can match.

But after slogging through 59 pages of Vidal's Lincoln, I closed the book with a sigh and returned it to the library, defeated. I could no longer stomach clunky chunks of exposition-rich, history-laden dialogue like this one:
"But you ain't Union, Mr. Thompson. You're from Virginia, like us."

"What I may be in my heart of hearts, Davie"--Mr. Thompson was now solemn--"I keep to my self, and I suggest you do the same because of our numerous distinguished customers."

"Mr. Davis was one of your customers?"

"One of my best customers, poor man. I've never known anyone to suffer so much from that eye condition of his. He'll be blind by the summer, I said to Dr. Hardinge, if you don't change the prescription. But you can't tell Dr. Hardinge anything. On my own, I gave Mr. Davis belladonna to stop the pain--"

"So then he is your President."

"If I were in business in Montgomery, Alabama, yes, he would be. But I am here--with my loved ones--in a shop at Fifteenth and Pennsylvania Avenue, and I am the official unofficial pharmacist for the presidents of the United States and as I looked after Mr. Buchanan and Miss Lane--she'll never make old bones, I fear--I intend to look after the Lincoln family, a large one, for a change, and sickly, I should think, wonderfully sickly, from the glimpse I had of them yesterday."

Though a friend tells me that Vidal's Burr is actually very good, I think Lincoln has probably turned me off Vidal's fiction for the foreseeable future. If you're looking to get your Lincoln fix, I recommend Adam Gopnik's article in this week's New Yorker instead. Nothing new there for true Lincoln afficionados, I'm sure, but for us casual fans it's a nice, brief look at recent scholarship on Lincoln's language. As for me, if I'm still in a Lincoln mood come the family vacation this summer, I may finally tackle Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (2005).

But on such a pleasant summer evening, it seems wrong to only criticize in this post, leaving you with nothing but another item for your unrecommended list. So instead, because I believe you can never remind people too many times or too loudly that, yes, the Civil War really was about slavery (and that those who try to say otherwise are usually pushing an unpleasant agenda)--and because I was inspired by the hilarious article on lolcats on Slate yesterday, I present to you an LOL Lincoln . . . the Lincloln:

(Original photo by chadh, used under Creative Commons license; Lincloln created by rocketlass.)


  1. I am so filled with joy that you have created a LOL Lincoln. Internet memes are so much better after going through the Rocketfilter.

  2. Apparently I was catching a subliminal lol presidents vibe, because there's a lol presidents contest on fark this morning.

    There's a Lincoln freein slaves, but he's in ur base, not in ur confederacy. Which I suppose might be more historically accurate: since Lincoln refused to accept that the seceded states had any stnading by which to form a new nation, he probably would have referred to what he was in as their base rather than dignify it by using the name they'd given it.

  3. i was very much surprised to find in your post that i've some unpleasant agenda to push, seeing as i believe the american civil war was as much about slavery as the war in iraq is about stopping terrorism.
    freeing the slaves was, in my opinion, a political move, one with pleasant consequences that we like to credit lincoln for. but lincoln was not a member of an abolitionist party, was he?

    the civil war was very much about a shift in power brought about through the destabilization of an economy. much like every other war waged in the name of old glory.

    i wonder just what my unpleasant agenda is...

  4. I apologize: I have been less declarative in my flippant comment about people having an agenda. I really don't mean _everyone_ who says otherwise; there are certainly legitimate points of disagreement on the issue--and if you say you have no agenda, I'm ready to believe you.

    But from 1866 up to the present, a key tenet of the "lost cause" school of pro-southern history has been that a desire to preserve states' rights rather than slavery was the primary cause of the war. It was used to make the southern cause seem more legitimate--even noble--and it later helped to give a more palatable-sounding pedigree to Southern efforts to maintain segregation all the way up through the civil rights era.

    The role of slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War is, in my view, fairly clear-cut. Slavery was _the_ issue of the decades leading up to the war. The South worried, sensibly, that the growing wealth, numbers, and industrial power of the North would inexorably lead to Northern political domination--and thus, when viewed through the inflamed rhetoric of the day, to abolitionist control. So they attempted to push for expansion of slavery into new territories, hoping to thus maintain the political balance. Decades of attempted compromise were rapidly proving untenable, with Bleeding Kansas and the abject failure of the Buchanan presidency only the most obvious evidence.

    Though Lincoln vowed that he had no designs on the South and no desire to free the slaves, he had argued against the extension of slavery and he was a member of what was viewed as the abolitionist party, so the 1860 election was viewed by many Southerners as essentially their last chance to save their livelihoods (i.e., their slaves). Within weeks of his election--and therefore before he had a chance to take any sort of threatening action--South Carolina had seceded.

    That is not to say that Lincoln was fighting to free the slaves--nor was the North in general. But _fear_ of the loss of slavery was, I would strongly argue, the primary cause of the South's secession and the attack on Fort Sumter. (I know this isn't a proper tactic for a historian, but when I try to imagine a South that somehow was in exactly the same demographic, industrial, and financial position relative to the North--but without slavery--I can't imagine a Civil War happening.)

    The South decided on war out of fear of the loss of their livelihood and way of life--which were in every way dependent on slavery. And once they took that action, the North was determined to fight--not, however, for abolition, but for the preservation of the Union in the face of what they saw as the fatal danger of freely allowed secession.

    All this is, in a roundabout way, to agree with your point about Lincoln: he was not, at least at the start of his term, in any way an abolitionist. He famously said "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." Some slave-holding states, after all, remained in the Union. It was only later in the war that Lincoln realized that the war's success--both militarily and politically--demanded that he take up the mantle of abolition and make clear that it was central to the cause. My sense as an amateur Lincoln fan is that by that point he also believed, morally and personally, that slavery had to be rooted out--but his official embrace of abolitionism was grounded in necessity.

    As I've said on this blog before, I'm far more dilettante than scholar. This is all my amateur's take, and it's been a few years since I've read Civil War history. So if you think I'm wrong, or misunderstanding or slighting or leaving out something important, I'd be glad to hear about it.