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Gilding Lincoln’s Lily

Freedom

by William Safire
Doubleday, 1,125 pp., $24.95

Much as they may deplore the fact, historians have no monopoly on the past and no franchise as its privileged interpreters to the public. It may have been different once (though Aristotle thought the claims of the poets superior), but there can no longer be any doubt about the relegation of the historian to a back seat. Far surpassing works of history, as measured by the size of their public and the influence they exert, are the novel, works for the stage, the screen, and television. It is mainly from these sources that millions who never open a history book derive such conceptions, interpretations, convictions, or fantasies as they have about the past. Whatever gives shape to popular conceptions of the past is of concern to historians, and this surely includes fiction.

Broadly speaking, two types of fiction deal with the past—historical fiction and fictional history. The more common of the two is historical fiction, which places fictional characters and events in a more or less authentic historical background. Examples range from War and Peace to Gone With the Wind. Since all but a few novelists must place their fictional characters in some period, nearly all fiction can be thought of as in some degree historical. But the term is applied as a rule only to novels in which historical events figure prominently. Fictional history, on the other hand, portrays and focuses attention upon real historical figures and events, but with the license of the novelist to imagine and invent. It has yet to produce anything approaching Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Some fictional history makes use of invented characters and events, and historical fiction at times mixes up fictional and nonfictional characters. As a result the two genres overlap sometimes, but not often enough to make the distinction unimportant.

Of the two, it is fictional history that is the greater source of mischief, for it is here that fabrication and fact, fiction and nonfiction, are most likely to be mixed and confused. Of course historians themselves sometimes mix fact with fancy, but it is a rare one who does it consciously or deliberately, and he knows very well that if discovered he stands convicted of betraying his calling. The writer of fictional history, on the other hand, does this as a matter of course, and with no compunction whatever. The production and consumption of fictional history appear to be growing of late. Part of the explanation for this is probably the fragmentation of history by professionals, their retreat into specializations, their abandonment of the narrative style, and with it the traditional patronage of lay readers. Fictional history has expanded to fill the gap thus created but has at the same time gone further to create a much larger readership than history books ever had.

Emboldened by their success, some writers of fictional history do not stop at justifying their license to mix fact with fiction but go on to blur or confuse important distinctions between the two. They can end by denying any significant difference at all between history and fiction. As the novelist E.L. Doctorow puts it, “There is no fiction or non-fiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative.” With that assumption he asks, “Why should fiction writers be denied the composition of history?” After all, the novelist does historical research too, even though he must take care “not to know too much.” Any danger of that would seem precluded by his research method: “My idea of research is idiosyncratic and accidental, to find something to confirm your hunch, and not to look for it until you need it.” Such a method would comport well with a somewhat frenzied manner of composition: “I just started to type,” he relates about writing The Book of Daniel, “very angry, full of despair, and with an intense feeling of self-mockery. I started typing—whatever it was, I didn’t know.”1

To turn from Doctorow’s work to Alex Haley’s Roots is to turn from history by “hunch” to history (or genealogy) by “feel.” His book, he says, is “a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what my researching led me to plausibly feel took place.” Far from minimizing research, however, Haley emphasizes it—twelve years and half a million miles of it “in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.” A stunning commercial success, Roots sold more than a million and a half copies the first year; a six-part TV adaptation attracted a hundred million viewers and won an award as the season’s best show. A special Pulitzer prize was created to honor this combination of fact and fiction, for which its author suggested the ill-conceived name “faction.” Examined by historians and genealogists later on, the factual pretensions of the “faction” collapsed disastrously, the genealogical foundations totally.2

One of the most prolific writers of fictional history now practicing the art is Gore Vidal, who has so far published, in addition to fifteen other novels, five of an ongoing cycle about various periods of American history between the time of Thomas Jefferson and that of Harry Truman, all of them starting high in the best-seller lists. One, for instance, entitled 1876, simplifies a complex contested presidential election. But whether representative or not, his Lincoln: A Novel (1984) will be considered here as an example of Vidal’s brand of fictional history. The novel treats Lincoln during his presidency, with a few references to earlier years. The book profits from some acquaintance of the author with scholarly literature on the period as well as from his wit, imagination, and gift for storytelling. In an afterword Vidal says that he has invented some characters and events, but that “the principal characters really existed and they said and did pretty much what I have them saying and doing.” Like Doctorow, he is persuaded that he excels historians (hagiographers, he calls them) in accurate portrayal of real figures, in this instance Abraham Lincoln. His book was extravagantly praised by both novelists and historians—a few of the latter at least.

Some of the foremost Lincoln scholars do not share these views. After listing numerous historical blunders and errors of the novel, Richard N. Current, a leading Lincoln biographer, declares that “Vidal is wrong on big as well as little matters. He grossly distorts Lincoln’s character and role in history.” Roy P. Basler, editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, estimates that “more than half of the book could never have happened as told,” and that another 25 percent consists of “episodes that might have happened, but never as told by Vidal.” He concludes with something Lincoln once said about Stephen A. Douglas: “He has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history.”3

With these examples of recent fictional history in mind, it is only natural to approach the latest and most ambitious venture in this field with some misgivings. William Safire’s Freedom bears on the jacket, though not the title page, the subtitle, A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Its publisher announces a “National Six-figure Advertising, Promotion, and Publicity Campaign.” The product is of dimensions proportional to the scale of promotion. Mr. Safire’s novel is nearly twice the size of Mr. Vidal’s bulky Lincoln and since it covers less than half the time span Vidal encompassed, it more nearly quadruples than doubles the proportions of the earlier novel. Freedom, in military chronology, runs from First Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861 through Antietam in September 1862 and on through Murfreesboro at the end of the year. It ends with Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The war is by that time not half over, and neither is Lincoln’s presidency. A sequel to this volume is not announced, but one of equal or greater length would seem a natural expectation.

The issue of fact versus fiction is addressed by both the publisher and the author. Jacket copy, for which the author cannot be held responsible, calls it “a profoundly moving novel” as well as “a significant work of history” by “a historian with the singular insight of a novelist” who “uses fiction to reveal the truth.” The author more modestly writes, “In general, the credibility quotient is this: if the scene deals with war or politics, it is fact; if it has to do with romance, it is fiction; if it is outrageously and obviously fictional, it is fact.” Safire goes further and adds an “Underbook,” 147 pages on “Sources and Commentary” and bibliography in which, he writes, “the author cites his sources, points out controversies that have aged and ripened for a century among historians, justifies his own judgments, and makes clear where reporting ends and imagination begins. The primary purpose here is to separate fact from fiction.”

What with all this scholarly paraphernalia lying around, one occasionally forgets where one is and starts looking for an index that isn’t there, or wishing the footnotes were at the bottom of the page “where they belong.” Until, that is, one bumps into a bit of stage scenery and is forced to face up to the facts of fiction. At any rate, evidence exists that this time we are not in the hands of another unbridled poststructuralist bent on denying any difference between fact and fiction and demonstrating that the probing imagination never meets any resisting reality in exploring the past. Safire undoubtedly mixes up fiction with fact, but he acknowledges that there is some difference between them and that fictional history is not a tennis game without a net on a court without lines.

The Lincoln that takes shape in these pages grows with the demands history makes on him. He is not the hero Carl Sandburg drew for his credulous times, nor the crafty manipulator Vidal draws for his cynical times. Safire’s Lincoln at least suggests the one scholars debate and often differ about. The novelist is aware of some of their controversies and how his own position relates to them. For example, in the notes at the back he acknowledges that he “tilts away from the historians’ traditional tolerance for Lincoln’s excesses,” meaning the dictatorial power the President paradoxically used to deny freedom in the name of freedom. And yet he can quote Professor Don E. Fehrenbacher with approval as saying, “The transcendent humaneness of the man lent the Civil War much of its luster, but it was his inveterate toughness that helped determine the outcome.” All that appears in the “Underbook,” while up front in the novel a familiar figure lumbers through the “Mansion” (as it was then usually called) under near day-by-day scrutiny. He is a Lincoln racked by debilitating depression (which he called melancholia), agonizing over the daily choice of evils, and seeking relief in one of his that-reminds-me stories. He is by turns Saint Sebastian, Machiavelli Pericles, and an oversize, countrified Puck.

  1. 1

    Doctorow is quoted in Bruce Weber’s article “The Myth Maker,” The New York Times Magazine (October 20, 1985). On the blurring of fact and fiction in contemporary letters more broadly see Cushing Strout, “Traveling in Border Country: American History, Fiction, and Biography,” The Southern Review, Vol. XXIII (April 1987), pp. 295–308.

  2. 2

    Alex Haley, Roots (Doubleday, 1976), pp. 565–584 for the quotations. Also Richard N. Current, “Fiction As History: A Review Essay,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. LII (February 1986), pp. 82–85; and Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. LXXVI (March 1984), pp. 35–47.

  3. 3

    Richard N. Current, “Fiction as History,” pp. 78–82; Roy P. Basler, “Lincoln and American Writers,” Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association (1985), Vol. VII, pp. 7–17; see also Gabor S. Boritt, “The Sandburg for Our Time? Gore Vidal’s Lincoln,” a paper read at the American Historical Association convention in December 1986.

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