Anyone who writes about Lincoln has a problem: his story is so well known that it’s all but impossible to tell it with suspense or surprise. In their 2012 movie, Lincoln, Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg solved this problem by focusing on a single episode, the struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, whose details were unlikely to be known in advance by most people watching the film.
But there is a second problem. Lincoln is so wrapped up in smothering epithets—Honest Abe, Rail Splitter, Great Emancipator, Father Abraham—that there’s a temptation to break through to something fresh by applying a corrosive dose of iconoclasm to the layers of myth. That is what Richard Hofstadter did in the mid-twentieth century when, with Lincoln’s reputation flying high, he pointed out that a strong motive behind the movement to stop the expansion of slavery was “Negrophobia,” which Lincoln, one of “the world’s great political propagandists,” shrewdly exploited. A few years later Edmund Wilson, in his brilliantly irreverent book about the Civil War, Patriotic Gore (1962), wrote that Lincoln, celebrated for his humility, was actually a man of overweening pride, convinced “of his own superiority” as he drove the nation headlong into the bloodbath.
In the effort to say something new about Lincoln, novelists would seem to have an advantage over historians. As the philosopher R.G. Collingwood wrote in The Idea of History (1946), the historian “stands in a peculiar relation to something called evidence,” which leaves him free to interpret but forbidden to invent. The novelist, on the other hand, can take liberties—suppressing this, embellishing that, even inventing situations, characters, and words that were never actually spoken. He has “a single task only: to construct a coherent picture, one that makes sense.” A novel is beholden to no external measure of truth; it must only be true to itself.
It turns out that meeting this internal standard is no small order. Among novelists who have been drawn to Lincoln, some have tried to meet it by sticking close to what’s known about him, as Gore Vidal did in Lincoln (1984), which approached the “Tycoon” (the name given to the president by his secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay) through the documented perspectives of advisers, allies, and rivals. Others have tried counterfactual narrative, as when Stephen Carter, in The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), imagined what might have happened had Lincoln survived Booth’s bullet and been charged with botching the reconstruction of the postwar South. Still others have abandoned all pretense of historical fidelity, as did Seth Grahame-Smith in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010), a sinister fantasy in which bloodsucking becomes a metaphor for draining the nation of vitality and the will to survive. With variable success, all these books try to bring alive the essentials of Lincoln’s story: the quest for power, the burden of responsibility, the loneliness.
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