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.)