• Email
  • Print

Gore Vidal’s ‘Lincoln’?: An Exchange

To the Editors:

For forty years The New York Times has, from time to time, put its collective “mind” to work in trying to find ways of coping with my disturbing presence on the American scene. When my novel Lincoln was recently turned into a miniseries by NBC, I wondered what the fun paper would do to try to kill the project. Richard Nixon’s “the easy way” would be to allow the neoconservative reviewer John Corry to give it a bad review; after all, he has even attacked me for my appearance as a guest on the Today show. But wouldn’t that be too little, too late? Why not assign a journalist to make a preemptive strike a week before the television program in order to assure the potential audience that Lincoln was a false portrayal based on a book that had been “faulted by historians,” to put it in Timesese. This is what happened in the Sunday New York Times of March 20.

Several months ago the author of the captions to several picture books on the Civil War era was assigned the bloody task. He went on location in Virginia. He talked to me on the telephone. He was pleasantly scatterbrained. I quoted to him Henry Adams; that it was the why of history not the what that interested him. I said that I was the opposite. For reasons unknown, the reporter then changed the author of my quotation, Henry Adams, to, of all people, Thoreau! This means that for scholars in the future The New York Times‘s error will be used as a primary source to prove that I—not the reporter—did not know Adams from Thoreau. Then, serenely unaware of his own blunder, he tells us that he found “troubling” the liberties I took with history. The first of the troubling errors is that “Lincoln reminisces about the day that Seward…regaled the 1860 Republican National Convention with his provocative ‘irrepressible conflict’ speech.” The caption writer is stern: Seward made the speech two years earlier; and Lincoln wasn’t at the convention. What did I say of this in the book?

The conflict is irrepressible is what you said.” Lincoln smiled. “That’s how you got me the nomination.”

In the dramatization Lincoln refers to Seward’s speech at a “Republic convention”; but does not say which one, or if he himself was there. Then the caption writer is troubled when the dramatization puts a meeting between the President and black leaders in what may or may not be the wrong chronological place, yet he does not dispute the content of what was said at the meeting. Finally, the caption writer can find nothing of importance in book or drama to be troubled about except for Lincoln’s, according to him, “half-hearted” suggestion that the freed slaves be colonized in Central America or Liberia, “an option he soon discarded.” This is untrue: but it is at the heart of a curious ongoing backlash to my view of Lincoln, and this whole business should be addressed with candor.

Plainly the fault is mine for not responding earlier to certain charges that were made against me in these pages (September 24, 1987) by C. Vann Woodward, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale. Sadly, he noted in The New York Review that the

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.”

Woodward gives no examples of these distortions. He does tell us that “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.’ ” Apparently, Woodward believes that it is sufficient merely to assert. He does not demonstrate; perhaps innocent of the text in question, he cites, vaguely, other assertions.

The late Vladimir Nabokov said that when anyone criticized his art, he was indifferent. That was their problem. But if anyone attacked his scholarship, he reached for his dictionary. After reading Woodward, I took the trouble to read the two very curious little essays that he cites. What case do they make? Is half the book all wrong: and Lincoln himself grossly distorted? Although I do my own research, unlike so many professors whose hagiographies are usually the work of those indentured servants, the graduate students, when it comes to checking a finished manuscript, I turn to Academia. In this case, Professor David Herbert Donald of Harvard, who has written a great deal about the period, which Woodward, as far as I recall, has not written about at all. I also used a professional researcher to correct dates, names, and agreed-upon facts.

Professor Richard N. Current fusses, not irrelevantly, about the propriety of fictionalizing actual political figures.* I also fuss about this. But he has fallen prey to the scholar-squirrels’ delusion that there is a final Truth revealed only to the tenured few in their footnote maze; in this he is simply naive. All we have is a mass of more or less agreed-upon facts about the illustrious dead and each generation tends to rearrange those facts according to what the times require. Current’s text seethes with resentment and I can see why. “Indeed, [Vidal] claims to be a better historian than any of the academic writers on Lincoln (‘hagiographers,’ he calls them).” Current’s source for my unseemly boasting is, God help us, the Larry King radio show, which lasts several hours from midnight on, and no one is under oath for what he says during—in my case—two hours. On the other hand, Larry King, as a source, is about as primary as you can get.

Now it is true as I said on the King show that I have been amazed that there has never been a first-rate biography of Lincoln, as opposed to many very good and—yes, scholarly—studies of various aspects of his career. I think one reason for this lack is that too often the bureaucrats of Academe have taken over the writing of history and most of them neither write well nor, worse, understand the nature of the men they are required to make saints of. In the past, history was the province of literary masters—of Gibbon, Macaulay, Burke, Locke, Carlyle, and, in our time and nation, Academe’s bête noire, Edmund Wilson.

In any case, zeroing in on my chat with Larry King, Current writes that

by denying there is any real basis for Vidal’s intimation that Lincoln had syphilis, [Stephen] Oates “shows,” according to Vidal, “that,…Mr. Oates is not as good a historian as Mr. Vidal.”

First, I like Current’s slippery “any real basis” for Lincoln’s syphilis. No, there is no existing Wasserman report or its equivalent. But there is the well-known testimony of William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, that Lincoln told him that he had contracted syphilis in his youth and that it had “clung to him.” This is a primary source not to be dismissed lightly; yet Mr. Oates was quoted in the press as saying that there was never any evidence that Lincoln had had syphilis, ignoring Lincoln’s own words to Herndon. It was Newsweek, not I, who said that Mr. Vidal is a better historian than Mr. Oates. I have no opinion in the matter as I’ve never read Oates except on the subject of me, where he is bold and inaccurate.

Current finds my trust in Herndon naive; and quotes Professor Donald on Herndon as being important largely because of “the errors that he spread.” But Donald was referring to Herndon’s haphazard researches into Lincoln’s family and early life, conducted after Lincoln’s death. I am not aware that Donald or anyone—except a professional hagiographer—could doubt Herndon when he says that Lincoln himself told him something. For the record, Donald’s actual words: “Herndon stands in the backward glance of history, mythmaker and truthteller.”

Current has literary longings; he frets over my prose. I spell “jewelry” and “practice” in the English manner and speak of a house in Fourteenth Street instead of on Fourteenth Street. It was not until H.L. Mencken, in 1919, that an attempt was made to separate the American language from the English; and even then, many writers ignored and still ignore the Sage of Baltimore. Since Burr and 1876 were written in the first person, as if by an American early in the last century, I used those locutions that were then common to agreed-upon American speech. For consistency’s sake, I continued them in Lincoln. As for myself, neither in prose nor in life would I say that someone lived on Fourteenth Street, though in the age of Reagan I have detected quite a few people living on rather than in streets. I also note that two novels I’ve been rereading follow my usage: The Great Gatsby, 1925, The Last Puritan, 1936. Current wins only one small victory: I use the word “trolley” in 1864 when the word did not come in until the 1890s. But his other objections are not only trivial but wrong. He says Charles Sumner was struck with a “cane” not, as I say, a “stick”; then and now the words are interchangeable, at least in Senator Sumner’s circles. He also trots out the tired quibble over the origin of “hooker.” For the purposes of a Civil War novel it is enough to give General Hooker the credit because the whores in Marble Alley, back of what is now the Washington Post Office, were commonly known as Hooker’s Division. According to Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, the only British meaning we have for the word at that time is a watch-stealer or pickpocket.

Current then fires off a series of statements that I have written such and such. And such and such is not true. This is dizzy even by contemporary American university standards. For instance, “Ulysses S. Grant had not failed in ‘the saddlery business.’ ” That he had failed is an offhand remark I attribute (without footnote) to a contemporary. The truth? At thirty-eight Grant had failed at every civilian job he had put his hand to, obliging him to become a clerk in his father’s firm, Grant & Perkins, which “sold harnesses and other leather goods…providing new straps for old saddles” (William McFeely’s Grant), and the business was run not by failure Grant but by his younger brother Orvil. Current is also outraged by a reference to Lincoln’s bowels, whose “frequency,” he tells us, “cannot be documented.” But, of course, they can. “Truth-teller” Herndon tells us that Lincoln was chronically constipated and depended on a laxative called bluemass. Since saints do not have bowels, Current finds all this sacrilegious; hence “wrong.”

Now there is no reason why Current, master of our language though he is, should understand how a novel—even one that incorporates actual events and dialogue—is made. The historian-scholar, of course, plays god. He has his footnotes, his citations, his press clippings, his fellow scholar-squirrels to quote from. If he lacks literary talent, he then simply serves up the agreed-upon facts as if they were the Truth, and should he have a political slant—and any American schoolteacher is bound to, and most predictable it is—the result will emerge as a plaster saint, like that dead effigy of Jefferson by Dumas Malone and his legion of graduate students.

Although a novel can be told as if the author is God, often a novel is told from the point of view of one or more characters. For those of us inclined to the Jamesian stricture, a given scene ought to be observed by a single character, who can only know what he knows, which is often less than the reader. For someone with no special knowledge of—or as yet interest in—Grant, the fact that harnesses and other leather goods were sold along with saddles by the failure Grant is a matter of no interest. The true scholar-squirrel, of course, must itemize everything sold in the shop. This is the real difference between a novel and a biography. But though I tend in these books more to history than to the invented, I am still obliged to dramatize my story through someone’s consciousness. But when it comes to a great mysterious figure like Lincoln, I do not enter his mind. I only show him as those around him saw him at specific times. This rules out hindsight, which is all that a historian, by definition, has; and which people in real life, or in its imitation the novel, can never have.

Current is a master of the one-line unproved assertion. Here are some of what he calls my false “contentions.” “As early as April 1861 Lincoln was thinking of emancipation as possibly justifiable as ‘a military necessity.’ ” I looked up the scene in the novel and found that it was not Lincoln but the abolitionist Sumner who was thinking along those lines; Lincoln himself was noncommittal. Then “Vidal pictures Lincoln as an ignoramus in regard to public finance. He makes him so stupid as to think Secretary of the Treasury Chase personally signed every greenback, and so uninformed as to have ‘no idea what the greenbacks actually represented.’ ” This is nicely—deliberately?—garbled. It is not Chase that Lincoln thinks signs the greenbacks but the treasurer, Lucius Crittenden; this provided a famous scene in Carl Sandburg’s hagiography, on which I do an ironical variation.

Current tells us that I go along with the “innuendo” that Stanton “masterminded the assassination.” If he had actually read the whole book, he would have been able to follow almost every turn to Booth’s assassination plot, in which Stanton figures not at all; had he got to the end of the book, he would have heard Hay make fun of those who believed that Stanton had any connection with the murder of the man to whom he owed everything. Next I “intimate” that there was a second plot afoot, involving “Radical Republicans in Congress.” There was indeed a second plot, to be found in Pinkerton’s Secret Service files. But no one knows who masterminded it.

Next, I propose the following outrage: that “Lincoln excluded Union-held areas from the Emancipation Proclamation” as a favor to “pro-Union slaveholders.” Yet it is a fact that seven counties in and around Norfolk, Virginia, and several Louisiana parishes were allowed to maintain slavery while slavery was banned in the rest of the South. Why did Lincoln do this? He needed Unionist votes in Congress, and one belonged to a Louisiana congressman. After all, Lincoln was never an abolitionist; he was a Unionist, and as he most famously said, if he could preserve the Union only by maintaining slavery, he would do so. Apparently, saints don’t make deals.

By and large, Current’s complaints range from the trivial to the pointless. Does he find me wrong on anything of consequence? Yes, he does. And I think it is the whole point to his weird enterprise. Current tells us that “there is no convincing evidence” for Vidal’s contention that “as late as April 1865 [Lincoln] was still planning to colonize freed slaves outside the United States.” This is a delicate point in the 1980s, when no national saint can be suspected of racism. I turned to one of my authorities for this statement; and realized that I may have relied on suspect scholarship. Here is the passage I used:

Lincoln to the last seemed to have a lingering preference for another kind of amendment, another kind of plan. He still clung to his old ideas of postponing final emancipation, compensating slaveholders, and colonizing freedmen. Or so it would appear. As late as March of 1865, if the somewhat dubious Ben Butler is to be believed, Lincoln summoned him to the White House to discuss with him the feasibility of removing the colored population of the United States.

This is from a book called The Lincoln Nobody Knows (p. 230) by Richard N. Current. So either Current is as wrong about this as he is about me, or he is right and between March and April 15, 1865, when Lincoln departed this vale of tears, the President changed his mind on the colonizing of slaves. If he did, there is no record known to me—or, I suspect, to anyone else.

What is going on here is a deliberate revision by Current not only of Lincoln but of himself in order to serve the saint in the 1980s as opposed to the saint at earlier times when blacks were still colored, having only just stopped being Negroes. In colored and Negro days the saint might have wanted them out of the country, as he did. But in the age of Martin Luther King even the most covertly racist of school boards must agree that a saint like Abraham Lincoln could never have wanted a single black person to leave freedom’s land much less bravery’s home. So all the hagiographers are redoing their plaster images and anyone who draws attention to the discrepancy between their own past crudities and their current falsities is a very bad person indeed, and not a scholar, and probably a communist as well.

Roy P. Basler, Woodward’s other “authority,” writes rather the way W.C. Fields’s Southern foil, Grady Sutton, acted. “The trouble with you, my boy,” Fields once drawled, “is you have too much of the tomboy in you.” There is a lot of tomboy in Basler. He is given to frantic hyperbole. He declares Sandburg’s Lincoln a “monumental achievement.” Well, it’s a monument all right—to a plaster saint, of the sort that these two professional hagiographers are paid to keep dusted. Basler finds my Lincoln the “phoniest historical novel I have ever had the pleasure of reading.” Well, there may be one phony bit, the Crittenden signature story, which I got from Basler’s monumental biographer Sandburg. Basler should have at least liked that. Also, “more than half the book could never have happened as told.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t say which half. If I knew, we could then cut it free from the phony half and publish the result as Basler’s Vidal’s Lincoln.

Like Current, Basler gets all tangled up in misread or misunderstood trivia. He goes on at great length that it was not the Reverend James Smith whom Lincoln appointed consul in Scotland but his son Hugh. Well, the son, Hugh, was appointed consul on June 10, 1861; then died; and the father was appointed, later, in his place. Basler says that Mary Todd’s scene with General Ord’s wife “is histrionically exaggerated out of all proportion to the recorded facts.” But it conforms with those recorded facts given by Justin G. and Linda Levitt Turner’s standard Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. He is also most protective of the saint. For instance, every saint is a kind and indulgent yet gently stern father, devoted to his children who worship him. But Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, did not much like his father.

Basler gets all trembly as he writes,

When Vidal has Robert Lincoln say to Hay about his father, “He hates his past. He hates having been a scrub…. He wanted me to be what he couldn’t be,” I find no excuse. Robert did admit that he and his father had never been close after he was grown, and he may have felt neglected, but for him to speak thus is beyond comprehension.

But he did speak thus, to Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, my grandfather, who often talked to me about Robert’s bleak attitude toward his father, and how, having sent his son to Exeter and Harvard in order to move him up in the world, he found that he had a son with whom he had not much in common. I myself attended Exeter four score years after Robert, and memories of Lincoln were still vivid; and well-described not long ago in the alumni bulletin: how Lincoln spoke at the Academy shortly after Cooper Union, and enthralled the boys. But not Robert.

Basler is also protective of the only recently beatified, by Academe, Walt Whitman. (This miracle was accomplished by making Walt Whitman homoerotic rather than homosexual.) “Consider,” he rails, “the three pages [actually one and a half] that he devotes to a fictional interview with Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, looking for a job.” Basler correctly notes that a Mr. Trowbridge presented a letter to Chase from Emerson, asking that Whitman be given a job. I have Whitman delivering the letter. Basler is stern. “Anyone who knows about Whitman would recognize that presenting the letter in person…is wholly false to Whitman’s character at this time of his life, and his conversation with Chase is entirely what Vidal might have said, but not Whitman.” If Whitman had thought a meeting with Chase would have got him a job he would have done so because, as he wrote of himself then, “I was pulling eminent wires in those days.”

As for Whitman’s dialogue with Chase, I quite fancied it. He describes the decorations of the Capitol and how “not in one’s flightiest dreams has there been so much marble and china, gold and bronze, so many painted gods and goddesses.” Whitman compares the Capitol favorably—but fatally to the teetotaller Chase—to Taylor’s saloon in New York. I took this particular passage from Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, as anyone immersed in the Whitman style—or mine for that matter—would know. Literary criticism is not, perhaps, Basler’s strong suit. Actually, I needed the encounter to fill in my portrait of Chase, who, exactly as I described, detested Whitman as the author of a “very bad book,” which he had not read; then, being an autograph collector, Chase kept the Emerson letter; then, being a jittery man on the subject of public rectitude, he turned the letter over to the Treasury archive. This is not too bad for a page-and-a-half—of agreed-upon facts, used to illuminate the character not of Whitman but of Chase.

Basler like Current is eager to bring the saint into the mainstream of today’s political superstition. Both are appalled whenever I mention his scheme for colonizing the ex-slaves. Both deny that he ever had anything but love and admiration for blacks, who were, he believed, in every way his equals, once slavery was past. “The one thing I most resented,” writes Basler, “is the perpetuation of ‘Lincoln’s unshaken belief that the colored race was inferior to the white’…. I have never found any such categorical avowal in anything Lincoln wrote or was reported to have said.” The slippery adjective here is “categorical.” Yet Basler himself wrote in The Lincoln Legend (pp. 210–211), “[Lincoln] never contemplated with any degree of satisfaction the prospect of a free negro race living in the same country with a free white race.” Not even I have dared go so far as to suggest that I have ever had any way of knowing what Lincoln may or may not have contemplated! In any case, Basler, like Current, is revising himself.

Actually, Lincoln’s views of blacks were common to his time and place but, as he was an uncommon man, he tried to transcend them, as he did in a speech in Peoria, in 1854: “My first impulse,” he said rather daringly for that year, “would be to free all slaves and send them to Liberia.” He then lists all the objections that others would later make to him. He finally throws in the towel when he asks: “Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? Our own feelings would not admit of it, and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of whites will not.”

It is my radical view that Americans are now sufficiently mature to be shown a Lincoln as close to the original as it is possible for us so much later in time to render. Since the race war goes on as fiercely as ever in this country, I think candor about blacks and whites and racism is necessary. It was part of Lincoln’s greatness that, unlike those absolute abolitionists, the Radical Republicans, he foresaw the long ugly confrontation, and tried to spare future generations by geographically separating the races. The fact that his plan was not only impractical but inadvertently cruel is beside the point. He wanted to do something; and he never let go the subject, unless of course he had a vision in the last two weeks of his life, known only to Current, who has chosen not to share it.

Recently, an excellent academic historian, Theodore S. Hamerow, published a book called Reflections on History and Historians. It was reviewed in The New York Times by an English history don, Neil McKendrick. Here is what two professionals have to say of the average American history teacher. As presented by Hamerow, he is “cynical.” I quote now from McKendrick: “He is also mean-minded, provincial and envious. We hear verdict after verdict condemning, in the words of one academic, ‘the wretched pedantry, the meanness of motive, the petty rancors of rivalry, the stultifying provincialism.’ ” But then “most professors of history do little research and less publishing and there are statistical tables to prove it. What little is produced is seen as ‘coerced productivity,’ mainly a parade of second-hand learning and third-rate opinions.” Thus, the high professional academics view their run-of-the-mill colleagues.

Recently in The New York Times Herbert Mitgang took me to task, indirectly, when he wrote: “several revisionist academics have advanced the incredible theory that Lincoln really wanted the Civil War, with its 600,000 casualties, in order to eclipse the Founding Fathers and insure his own place in the pantheon of great presidents.” Now there is no single motive driving anyone but, yes, that is pretty much what I came to believe, as Lincoln himself got more and more mystical about the Union, and less and less logical in his defense of it, and more and more appalled at all the blood and at those changes in his country, which, he confessed—with pride?—were “fundamental and astounding.” The Lincoln portrayed by me as well as the Lincoln on television is based on a speech he made in 1838 at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield. He began by praising the Founding Fathers and their republic; then he went on:

This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they too will seek a field. It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true to suppose that men of ambitions and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passions as others have done before them. The question, then, is can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot.

Thus Lincoln warns us against Lincoln.

Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions unexplored…. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the path of any predecessor however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving free men.

Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself and, in the process, us. What the Trojan War was to the Greeks, the Civil War is to us. What the wily Ulysses was to the Greeks, the wily Lincoln is to us. I am neither Homer nor Virgil. But it is of those arms that I have tried to sing, and of that man—not plaster saint but towering genius, our nation’s haunted and haunting re-creator.

Gore Vidal

Rome, Italy

C Vann Woodward replies:

To prevent one possible misreading of Mr. Vidal’s letter, I only wish to point out that it was not his novel on Lincoln that I was reviewing but a longer one on the same subject by William Safire entitled Freedom, one that was rather more scrupulous in its uses of history. Gore Vidal was one of three novelists (the other two being E.L. Doctorow and Alex Haley) mentioned briefly to illustrate the failure of some writers of fictional history to respect the distinction between fact and fancy. Richard N. Current and Roy P. Basler were two of the Lincoln authorities cited and quoted on Mr. Vidal’s shortcomings in this respect. It is these two “scholar-squirrels” who bear the brunt of his somewhat intemperate assault upon the tribe of historians. They are quite capable of defending themselves and giving their assailant his due. In view of the fire Mr. Vidal has rashly called down upon his head from those quarters I refrain from adding further to his troubles and from unnecessarily exacerbating what he himself describes as “my disturbing presence on the American scene.”

  1. *

    Richard N. Current, “Fiction as History: A Review Essay,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. LII, No. 1 (February 1986), pp. 77–90.

  • Email
  • Print