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Buchanan Redux

Buchanan Dying: A Play

by John Updike
Knopf, 262 pp., $6.95

Even an expert playwright would be daunted by the task of wringing a coherent drama from the story of James Buchanan. After dogging the tracks of the presidency for twenty-five years, Buchanan at last secured the prey when both he and it had lost their glamour. He entered the White House in his sixty-fifth year with an acute case of dysentery, and he met the most savage constitutional crisis the nation has ever endured.

Buchanan’s great accomplishment as president was to relieve Lincoln of the burden of provoking the Civil War. He preserved the union just long enough for it to dissolve the month after Lincoln’s inauguration, but he never discovered policies that would inch the government away from a bestial trial by fury. At a moment when this country wanted the most exalted leadership, Buchanan offered a reasoned submission to the will of Congress, a pious adherence to the Constitution (strictly interpreted), and a determination to shoulder as little blame as possible for the violence about to erupt. He never grew up into the fatherly pilot that an anxious people desire. He remained fixed in the role of servant or partner of the legislative branch; and when he faulted Congress for disregarding the omens, he only confessed that he misunderstood a president’s responsibilities.

Buchanan came from a Scotch-Irish immigrant family who settled among their own kind in southern Pennsylvania as the Revolutionary War was ending. His parents worked tirelessly; did well, and had many children, of whom James was the eldest survivor. He learned as a boy to welcome grinding hard labor and to worship a streamlined Calvinist godhead. After a few years as a brilliant but rebellious undergraduate with an immense capacity for alcohol, he took his degree and went into the law. Thanks to his intellectual agility, his cultivated skill as a debater, and the meticulous presentation of his arguments, he won a remarkable number of difficult cases.

Entering state politics, Buchanan quickly learned to harness his opinions to the requirements of a party. He discovered how to screen ambition with a display of indifference, to attract supporters without committing himself to their warfare, and to hedge his backing for any policy until it proved itself effective. He attained a power of rationalizing his self-interest that was remarkable even for a politician. When Buchanan was Secretary of State—the post that suited his talents best—he negotiated the Oregon Treaty, finessed President Polk into accepting it, and then worked noiselessly for its approval in the Senate. But as soon as he knew the treaty would pass, he openly reproached Polk for giving in to the British. Most Americans had come to think of the forty-ninth parallel as a weak compromise, and Buchanan did not wish to answer for it.

He was tall and fair, with an attentive tilt of the head and neck that derived from a pair of ill-matched eyes. Order and system marked his character. He accumulated property steadily but not recklessly. He enjoyed keeping accounts, saving documents, collecting secrets. Although not a suspicious man, he became an inquisitive busybody. During his term as president he opened letters addressed to his darling niece Harriet and examined Cobb, his Secretary of the Treasury, on Mrs. Cobb’s finances.

Buchanan combined a fear of sexuality with a fondness for women. After his own birth his mother produced four daughters (if we ignore infant deaths) but no more sons until James was fourteen. Since he was the preferred child, clever and good-looking, I suppose he got into the habit of taking female attentions for granted. He deeply enjoyed masculine conviviality; and the number of men he attracted and abandoned in fifty years of political activity would startle a social psychologist.

When he was twenty-eight, Buchanan became engaged to Anne Coleman, heiress to a great fortune. But she inconveniently died after a lovers’ quarrel. This loss seemed to give Buchanan the occasion he wanted to postpone any marriage until all his other problems were settled, a moment which of course never arrived. He returned to the brink of matrimony at least once more, when he was forty-six; but nothing came of this engagement either.

Yet bachelorhood hardly simplified Buchanan’s private life. Instead, he met a fate normally reserved for cuckolds; for he enjoyed the privileges of parenthood without the fatigue of begetting children. The reason is that the death of his father and of various brothers-in-law left the supervision of something like a dozen siblings, nephews, and nieces in his hands at one time or another. When he entered the White House, his niece Harriet Lane served as his hostess and his nephew J.B. Henry became his private secretary.

Buchanan’s morality was less vulnerable than most politicians’. As a pater-familias he was a most benevolent despot, steering his adult relations away from indigence, providing the children with homes and schools, finding niches in government service for deserving youths. Although authoritarian, he was not possessive; and in his domestic charities he maintained an accountant’s sense of what was due himself. In 1833 his sister Maria’s third husband, a doctor, lost a bet of two hundred dollars that Buchanan would be elected senator. He also lost the patient who had made the wager. Buchanan, who held the mortgage on the doctor’s house, made the loss up with a receipt for two hundred dollars against the monthly payments. When he wished to indulge Maria, he would tell her husband to deduct fifty dollars from the month’s installment of $150, and give it to her. Until a formal receipt arrived from Maria, declaring she had received the gift, Buchanan would not enter the credit on his books.

No heterodoxy appears in the annals of his religion. He worshiped regularly at a Presbyterian church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and took care to pay his pew rent before taking off to be our ambassador in St. Petersburg. There, he was troubled to see the imperial court profane the sabbath with dances; and he forbade dancing in the White House even when the Prince of Wales came. Although some of his religion was politically inspired, he had a daily habit of private prayer. During his last summer as president, he engaged in an extraordinary conversation with a minister about the nature of religious experience, after which he said he “hoped” he was a Christian and declared that he would “unite with” the Presbyterian Church when he left the presidency. The minister asked why he delayed, and Buchanan replied, “If I were to unite with the Church now, they would say, ‘Hypocrite!’ from Maine to Georgia.”

As a statesman, Buchanan joined the Calvinist’s low opinion of human nature in general with a lack of deliberately selfish purposes on his own part. He did wish to rise through a cursus honorum to the highest of all offices; but otherwise he honestly aspired to be a public servant, upholding the Constitution, respecting the powers of Congress, and strengthening the Supreme Court. Above all, he hoped to preserve and extend the union, regarding the issue of slavery as one that would wither away if properly neglected.

What amazes one is how sharply Buchanan illustrates a dull truth, that ordinary wisdom and integrity cannot handle an extraordinary political crisis. This truth is hardly the brightest center for a narrative plot. But the contrast between expertise and impotence could furnish the motif of a play alternating scenes from public and domestic life, and ending with Buchanan’s remark to his successor on Inauguration Day: “My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”

Updike has chosen to build his play around another theme, the education of Buchanan’s heart. The focus of Act I is young Buchanan’s engagement to marry Anne Coleman. Unwilling to face the abyss of unreason that passionate love would open, he subtly rejects the girl, who then kills herself. The focus of Act II is the constitutional impasse of Buchanan’s last months as president. Here the unreasoned passions of the South meet the same cautious, legalistic response as did Miss Coleman’s libido. The last act shows Buchanan finally confronting the horror of human life in a world purged of divine reason. He recoils, turns back to conventional faith, and dies.

If Updike’s play held one’s attention, its unhistorical features would matter less. But the story must bewilder any reader unacquainted with the details of Buchanan’s life. The scene is the dying man’s bedroom. As his now disorderly mind produces events or illusions, they are acted out. Real people come to see him, interrupt the reveries, and are absorbed into them. The sequence of episodes is not chronological but dreamlike.

For this poetic blending of internal idea and external reality there are precedents in Updike’s novels, where he often dwells on the ghostliness of his people. The structure of the novels is rarely a line of probable actions, each producing the next. The arrangement of the incidents is more often arbitrary, associative, poetic. The motives and affections of the characters change unpredictably. Even scenes of high drama, like the burning of the church in Couples, are undercut by Updike’s taste for parody and ventriloquism. The expanding use of recent public events in Couples, Bech, and Rabbit Redux might have prepared us for the poetic use of history in Buchanan Dying. The displays of mimicry in the novels also foreshadow Updike’s pleasure in catching the voices of the forty-odd speakers in his play.

The dreamlike pattern of the play rests on the repetition of themes and gestures, images and situations. The bells that punctuate various sections take us back to the bell Mrs. Buchanan is said to have hung about her son’s neck when he was tiny, so he would not be lost while exploring the woods. So their sound suggests the lure and danger of the irrational, the mystery of human wickedness, the fragility of institutions meant to keep us in the ways of righteousness. The women keep dissolving into Anne Coleman. Buchanan’s failure to respond to her is the crucial event that echoes through other memories and hallucinations; and her loss deepens the guilt he suffered (according to the playwright) over his elder sister Mary, who died the year he was born. Letters, messages, decisions tend to revive scenes from the early love affair. One infers that all the crises of a man’s life are re-enactments of those that first shaped his character—an insight (if it is one) neither fresh nor exciting enough to compensate readers who persist to the end of the play.

For all the scholarly apparatus of the book, Updike’s account remains dubious history. Information about Buchanan’s connection with Miss Coleman is exceedingly thin, and his later treatment of women does not suggest that her death scared him away from them. The tale of the girl’s suicide is a remote piece of unreliable gossip. Updike represents her as an anti-establishment intellectual, rich and neurotic, pulsing with eros—a spiritual ancestor of Jill in Rabbit Redux. But history gives us no reason to believe that Miss Coleman was a devotee of new thought or of sexual experiment.

Neither does it trouble Buchanan with the eccentric theology that Updike ascribes to him. Here we possess reliable information, and it contradicts Updike’s representation of a man unable to digest the element of evil in humanity. Even a softened Calvinism would acquaint any systematic thinker with the depravity of mankind. As Dr. Johnson said, only the desert or the cell can exclude it from notice; and Buchanan was neither a hermit nor a nun. The fear of the irrational that drives the character in the play does link Buchanan’s frigidity to his legalistic politics. But Updike does not try to make the rest of the person cohere. Instead, he has Buchanan confess that his own deepest problem is the split between self and action.

The feature of the play that should transcend its confusion is the vividness of the separate dialogues and their revelation of personality. In Rabbit Redux the first meeting of Harry, Babe, and Skeeter, at Jimbo’s, shows with how much brilliance and conviction Updike can reproduce voices not his own. In the play this talent is whittled away. If one knows the background well, the language will often sound anachronistic or false. A woman capable of writing Mrs. Buchanan’s letters would hardly talk to her son in the primitive idiom the play allots to her. But even if one has no history, the speeches too often sound flat and mechanical, perhaps because many of them are quick paraphrases of historians’ accounts. One exception is the autobiography of Andrew Jackson in Act II. One may not credit this as authentic speech. But it shakes with somebody’s feeling, conveys the quality of a man at the opposite pole of psychology from Buchanan, and bears a second reading.

One does not get the impression that Updike has worked overtime to elaborate the design and smooth the seams of the play. The line of action will puzzle most readers, with its arbitrary leaps in time, its mixture of living, dead, and illusory figures, its quick succession of half-identified persons and little speeches. The treatment of the characters changes inexplicably from sympathetic to ironical, and Updike stands on surprisingly neutral ground in the judgment of Buchanan’s virtues and faults.

Some illumination is provided by the long afterword, in which Updike validates his scholarship while chatting about the sources of his information and the way he came to write the play. Here he spreads out some of the materials he could not fit into the text, and here he offers what is the most careful and valuable literary accomplishment in the book, an excellent ballad imitation dealing with an episode in Buchanan’s early career.

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