Gilding Lincoln’s Lily


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.

While Lincoln is viewed primarily as a political animal—as is virtually every soul in the long cast of characters—he is endowed with other dimensions and more personal qualities than any other contemporary we meet in the book. Not merely chief executive, head of state, and commander in chief, he is writer, reader, political theorist, and round-the-clock philosopher. He is also (more dimly) husband, father, and bosom friend, who kept his counsel and set limits to intimacy. Mary Todd Lincoln is not given a leading role in the novel and is granted rather less sympathy than usual. She is seen most often through the disdainful eyes of her husband’s young secretary, John Hay, who refers to her habitually as “the Hellcat.” The death of her small son Willie paralyzes her with grief, puts her in mourning, drives her into the mercies of spiritualists, and keeps her out of sight most of the time.

The President’s habitual companions and the novelist’s leading characters are politicians, generals, and journalists—important ones. Almost everybody who was anybody in wartime Washington (and nobody who wasn’t) is in the picture. Whatever fictions he invents about them, Safire’s characters are real, not fictional. At least I never identified an invented one. The distinction quoted above that the author draws between “fact” if it’s war or politics and “fiction” if it’s romance is not very helpful. Reunited lovers go to bed talking presidential war powers, wake up thinking military strategy, and report political dreams. The “romance” in these pages is of the kind that prompts the following reflection from old Francis Preston Blair, one of Lincoln’s advisers:

It never ceased to amaze him how the human element, especially in its sexual dimension, could stir politicians and affect the makeup of cabinets, the presidential succession—perhaps the fate of armies and the control of the conduct of wars.

Blair might have taken the words right out of Safire’s mouth, so to speak. It is Safire who reports in detail the curious services rendered a prominent Union senator by “the most exciting woman in Washington,” Rose Greenhow, the Confederate spy. Union detective Allan Pinkerton spied on the spy during the exercise from a bedside boudoir window and reported that he could not tell from the look on her face “how much was sexual and how much political.” Here fact and fiction seem as confused as sex and politics.

Senators, cabinet members, generals, political dynasts, and pundits reflect in their conduct the course of military and political developments. Secretary of State William H. Seward changes from aggressive rival to valued ally of the President. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase pursues his devious ambition to take Lincoln’s place, and his glamorous daughter Kate cooperates by marrying the needed money. Senator Bluff Ben Wade earns his nickname and his radical credentials once again. The old sage Blair coaches his sons Montgomery and Frank, Jr., on the mysteries of power seeking and advises the President to pursue policies to their advantage. And Edwin M. Stanton will capture the War Office “no matter what duplicity,…what hypocrisy,…what demeaning flattery or false promises were required.”

Not all readers will agree with his rendering of these familiar stories, but Safire’s versions are engagingly told. None more so or with closer attention to detail and complexity than the controversy between Lincoln and General George B. McClellan—and Stanton’s part in it. The events that led to McClellan’s being relieved of command of the Union armies are the very core of military politics in this part of the war. While wearing his other hat as historian, Safire (in his notes at the back) is dead right, I think, in saying that the important difference between the President and the general he fired was political rather than military: that the general’s “real insubordination was in presuming to set national goals,” which is a president’s job, and that the President was wrong to “interfere in detail” with the fighting, which is a general’s job.

The present-mindedness in the pundit-historian peeps out from behind the scenes when a blundering and jealous Congress is pictured trying to take over the President’s job of running the war and foreign policy. When nobody is looking the novelist will borrow the pedagogue’s hat and teach some history lessons. For example, he instructs us that “the central idea of majority rule” was “the unshakable political religion of the land” in Lincoln’s mind. That was a curious religion for a president elected by a minority of those voting in 1860, one who approved the secession of a minority of Virginians to form the new state of West Virginia while he was fighting a war to prevent a majority in eleven old states from achieving secession from the Union. An experienced pedagogue could have warned him about awkward questions from unidentified students at the back of the room.

Mr. Safire is more cautious about the centrality of the idea of emancipation suggested by the title chosen for his book. No cynic about freedom as a war aim, he is no idealist either, and is better described as a realist. It would, in fact, be difficult to find a more astute political analysis of the purposes behind the Emancipation Proclamation than those he puts in the President’s mind. It was among other things “using the issue of black freedom to subjugate white rebels.” By one stroke the Great Emancipator saw himself creating a new source of Union manpower, reducing rebel manpower, planting terror behind enemy lines, reinvigorating war sentiment in the North, blocking foreign threats of intervention in the war, justifying “seizing more property than any despot in history,” and, whether as afterthought or not, providing moral justification for the greatest bloodbath of the century. And incidentally freeing millions of human beings from bondage—eventually, piecemeal, and whether constitutionally or not.

Watching the novelist hover over Lincoln’s shoulder calling shots of syntax, word choice, and sentence structure is like watching a skilled pro admire an intuitive artist at work. One is reminded that Safire once served as a president’s speech writer himself. Here is the President revising a famous passage in a message to Congress in his head: “He added ‘quiet’ to the past and ‘stormy’ to the present” and substituted “dogmas” for “beliefs” to add negative connotations. Other aspects of Safire’s career are suggested by features of the novel. One is the prominence, influence, and insight attributed to the press, including editors, owners, and reporters. For example, the New Yorkers, including Greeley of the Tribune, Bennett of the World, Raymond of the Times. Journalists are in and out of the President’s office all the time and sometimes seem omniscient. They are also up on all the gossip. The most interesting and brilliant woman in the novel is Anna Ella Carroll of Maryland, a journalist, a military strategist, and a charmer. Safire wants to present a Washington insider’s view of the Civil War and a view from the top down. The cast consists largely, in Anna Carroll’s words, of those who know “whom to see and what could be done and how to ask for it.” Most of the actions viewed take place within residences or streets on the four sides of Lafayette Square—including the Mansion across Pennsylvania Avenue.

We do get out on the battlefields occasionally, though usually with the reporters or Mathew Brady’s photographers or in some general’s tent. Two spectacular battlepieces, one on Shiloh and one on Antietam, each in all its appalling slaughter and horror, are persuasive evidence that the old reporter has more than deskbound talents and interests. Of course the reporter’s instinct that the big news comes out of headquarters’ tent may account for it, but one does get the impression that this war was fought by generals rather than enlisted men and officers of junior rank. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank provide the casualities by hundreds of thousands, but they don’t have much to say for themselves.

Another conspicuous omission is the other side. Occasionally we glimpse southern rebels, principally women spies and generals in the field. But only one Confederate, General John Breckinridge of Kentucky, is given the attention and space that dozens of Union figures receive. His is a very moving and appealing portrait indeed (and he is rewarded by being endowed by fiction with Anna Carroll as mistress), but as the novelist himself points out, “The Breckinridge family was on both sides, and so, in a sense,” was the general. Other figures in gray are largely tagged with stereotypes. As if in caricature of his own prose the author refers in one passage to “the dashing Johnston, the fainthearted Beauregard, the bullheaded Bragg, the acquiescent Buckner, the reckless Morgan, the doubting Breckinridge.” Jefferson Davis comes on briefly with some incredibly wooden lines. Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, and Forrest get short shrift, though Lee is still the marble man. It only remains to add that the novelist has a perfect right to treat only one side. This is a book about Washington, not Richmond.

More doubtful is Safire’s neglect of the large black presence and part in the Civil War. Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress and White House companion, was a former slave, and some plausible scenes between her and the President are invented. We are also given a shocking glimpse of the whip-mangled back of a fugitive slave. One book of the nine into which the novel is divided is indeed entitled “The Negro,” but it is largely concerned with other matters, with only four or five pages on blacks, and most of that is what whites said or did about them, not what they said and did themselves. As a whole they are granted fewer than twenty-five lines of their own to speak. None of their prominent leaders are introduced, and Frederick Douglass is not mentioned. Lincoln speaks his sad lines to a silent black delegation: “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” And that’s about it. Nowhere does this huge book face up squarely to the impact of slavery and the complexities of race.

For a story stopped in midcourse, January 1, 1863, the author contrives a strong ending—or better, curtain, for it is more of a stage device. The scene is the annual New Year’s Day reception at the Executive Mansion. The Lincoln family in the receiving line stands in the Blue Room and the callers file by, diplomatic corps and military in dress uniform and the rest in their Sunday best. All the cast present in the city at the time take a final bow, with appropriate words from the President for those who have played leading roles. Then the Great Emancipator goes upstairs with a numb right hand to massage and many reflections to ponder before squaring away to sign the proclamation.

Then what is there to quarrel with about this stupendous performance? Specialists can pick flaws in the history, as they regularly do in work of historians. There are some to be picked all right, but this is a novel, after all, and by a novelist who has taken the unprecedented pains (as far as I know) to back up his fiction with 147 pages of notes on sources. And that includes a long and well-chosen bibliography with which he demonstrates familiarity. Aren’t the scholars playing hard to please? Putting aside minor slips, and assuming as many as a dozen bloopers in all, that would average out in a book this size to only one blooper per hundred pages. Many historians do worse, and less is expected of novelists.

Is the book readable? Decidedly. But is it worth reading? That is a more difficult question. Much depends. Of the thousands who are expected to read it, many will find it entertaining enough to answer the question. It is a lot of book and entertainment for the price. Since it includes more than seventy-five photographs, most of them full page and many from Mathew Brady’s camera, it could also answer for a Civil War picture book, a good one, too. The pictures form important parts of the documentation. As for historical reliability, many will pass that off with the reflection that one does not read fiction for historical facts but for how people felt and thought and experienced them.

That will not do for the more finicky and fastidious. With regard to his own study of the Civil War period, Edmund Wilson observed, “I don’t know of any other historical crisis in which everybody was so articulate…. Their speeches and articles and diaries and letters and memoirs make most fiction about it seem pale; and a study of the literature of the period becomes more or less a history of what happened.”4 He is saying that with materials this rich, why invent new and imaginary ones, pale fictions? Why gild the lily? Safire himself can with authority cite Lincoln quoting Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act III:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

And he can vary that by quoting (among many available) Abe’s story about Frémont’s grab for power: “Makes me think of the man whose horse kicked up and stuck his hoof through the stirrup. Man said to the horse, ‘If you are going to get on, I will get off.’ ” With a protagonist and a cast ad-libbing lines like that, with everybody being so articulate, and with history providing a script that outdoes fiction for improbability, one can see why Safire warns his reader that “if it is outrageously and obviously fictional, it is fact.” If so, one might ask, why resort to fiction?

A large and thorough study entitled The Unwritten War by Daniel Aaron is devoted to the thesis that creative writers have never successfully risen to the challenge presented by the Civil War. He is able to cite impressive corroborative opinion going all the way back to Whitman’s belief that “the real war will never get into the books” and William Dean Howells’s view that the war “laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely.” And on down to Robert Penn Warren, who writes of “the great single event of our history” that it was probably too “massively symbolic in its inexhaustible and sibylline significance” to be encompassed by fiction. At any rate, writes Aaron, “no Scott or Tolstoy appeared,” and “the long anticipated ‘epic’ remained unwritten.” He goes on to venture the opinion that, with the exception of a few “illuminating flashes” from poets and novelists, “in recent years, historians and biographers have more often come closer to ‘the real sense’ of the War than fiction writers, poets, and literary critics.”5

In the face of this record of failure and skepticism and, I am sure, quite aware of it, Mr. Safire has nevertheless persisted with his enormous undertaking, spending, according to his publisher, “eight years in the research and writing.” I cannot but admire such hardihood, even while sharing the skepticism I have expressed above and doubting the value of some of the devices of fictional history the author employs. For example, he invents many pages of diary for John Hay in order to provide inside views of Lincoln’s actions and conversations and White House events. But then he will mix segments of Hay’s real diary with the fictional diary and use the latter as evidence on controversial questions. Omniscience and mind reading are part of the novelist’s license and are regularly used in writing of fictional characters without special cause for wonder. But when the same license is used about real people, historical figures we know a great deal about, and whose impregnable secrets we have felt bound to respect, that is another matter. And here on the page facing their authentic full-page Brady photographs, they stand, stripped naked, their imagined secrets revealed. This constant juxtaposition and confusion of the real and the imagined gives the historian chills and fever, whether or not he shares the entertainment enjoyed by the laity.

I began by citing three unfortunate examples of fictional history that preceded Mr. Safire’s experiment. I hope that by this time it has become clear that I am not placing him in their company except as a writer of fictional history. By way of compensation I offer a more attractive predecessor, though one whose example is not without an admonition of its own. This is Max Beerbohm, a novelist who also sought to become a servant of Clio, muse of history. In a chapter aside in the middle of his memorable novel Zuleika Dobson, first published in 1911, he pauses to tell how his petition to Clio was granted.

It seems that Clio had grown unhappy with her faithful servants, who thought of “nothing but politics and military operations” and produced “a mass of dry details which might as well be forgotten.” For centuries she had “kept up a pretense of thinking history the greatest of all the arts” and “held her head high among her Sisters.” But when novels came along she became addicted and spent all her spare time reading them. About this time Zeus took a shine to Clio and gave pursuit. Taking advantage of his infatuation, she begged a favor: “Zeus, father of gods and men, cloud-compeller,” she began, and went on to ask him “to extend to the writers of history such privileges as are granted to novelists”—invisible presence at all events they describe and “power to see into the breasts of all persons” of whom they write. The slopes of Parnassus trembled with the wrath of Zeus over this absurd demand. But Clio smiled and Zeus was “induced to let her have her way just once.” Clio then picked Beerbohm to use this god-given once-for-all power to chronicle dire events she saw were about to take place in Oxford. It is thus that we have a novel G.B. Shaw aptly called “incomparable.” But when Beerbohm sought to impose on her patience—and here’s the admonition—Clio, he reports, “abused me in language less befitting a Muse than a fishwife.”6

  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.

  4. 4

    Edmund Wilson to Mamaine Koestler, December 5, 1953, in Elena Wilson, ed., Edmund Wilson: Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912–1972 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), p. 610.

  5. 5

    Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (Knopf, 1973), pp. xiv, xv, xvi, 129, 328–329; Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (Random House, 1961), pp. 80–81.

  6. 6

    Max Beerbohm, The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson: Or an Oxford Love Story (Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 178–186. The italics for the two words so printed are added.