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Vidal’s ‘Lincoln’: An Exchange

In response to:

Gore Vidal's 'Lincoln'?: An Exchange from the April 28, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

Gore Vidal recently used the occasion of his renewed “exchange” with Lincoln scholars and biographers [Letters, NYR, April 28] to rebut an unnamed “caption writer’s” New York Times article on the NBC-TV mini-series based on his novel.

I am perfectly happy to identify myself as the “caption writer” to whom he refers. I am the coauthor of two studies of Civil War iconography, The Lincoln Image and The Confederate Image, both of which certainly have captions, but also text, and none of which, I presume, Mr. Vidal has read. I, on the other hand, actually read all of Mr. Vidal’s novel. Thus forearmed, I required a fee from the Times to read the script of “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” and watch the television production. Now I believe I must respond to some of the outlandish comments Mr. Vidal made on your pages.

Needless to say, the Times did not assign me to “bloody” the mini-series, as Mr. Vidal suggests, but to measure its faithfulness to history, and in so doing, consider the genre of historical drama and the confusion it can generate. The case of “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” presented special problems. It was not biographical drama, per se, but a dramatization of a historical novel. As such, it not only revivified many of Mr. Vidal’s errors and excesses, but manufactured some new ones of its own, for which no reasonable observer would think of holding Mr. Vidal responsible.

Nevertheless the novelist recites a litany of attacks he insists I levelled against him in the Times. I would remind him that only a 200-word sidebar that accompanied the article dealt directly with Mr. Vidal and his opus. The other 2,200 words surveyed the television program. How easily one might have yielded to the temptation to lump the two products together.

For example, Mr. Vidal will surely remember, given his astounding total recall of our long-distance telephone conversations, that at one point I broke the news to him that the mini-series would conclude with Mary Tyler Moore—as Mrs. Lincoln—reciting a highly unlikely, fatalistic rumination on her husband’s murder. His death, she laments, was all but preordained for his decision to wage a bloody war rather than let the South secede. In Mr. Vidal’s novel, these words had been uttered not by Mary but by Lincoln’s young private secretary. Wasn’t their sudden emergence as Mrs. Lincoln’s beliefs “scatter-brained” (Mr. Vidal’s word for me), or at best, “dizzy” (his assessment of Lincoln scholar Richard Current)? As it turns out, the sentiments were re-assigned to Miss Moore, the producers cheerfully admitted, when the actress complained that she hadn’t been given enough lines. “Oh, my God,” Mr. Vidal exclaimed in response. “Mary Lincoln would never have said that. Or even thought it. It’s totally out of character, to say the least.” Yet the producers also boasted that Mr. Vidal had read and applauded the script, and so Mr. Vidal confirmed.

In fact, the script of “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” was riddled with errors, large and small, which Mr. Vidal, for all his self-professed knowledge of history, failed to catch. In retrospect, I regret that I did not ascribe more responsibility to him, especially in view of his apparent assumption that the blame belonged entirely to him anyway.

As for Mr. Vidal’s assertion that my criticisms were few and minor, he might be interested to know that space constraints alone prevented me from alerting viewers to more. For example, Lincoln hardly made a “shady bargain” with his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, to win his support for his 1864 re-election campaign, by offering him in return the job of chief justice, as “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” contends. For one thing, the vacancy did not present itself until the seemingly indestructible Roger B. Taney finally died, by which time Lincoln had safely won renomination. After that, he had about as much need for fellow Republican Chase’s endorsement as he had for the late Mr. Taney’s Mr. Vidal and his mini-series were simply irresponsible, in this instance, in their apparent quest to topple the “plaster saint.”

Finally, Mr. Vidal’s efforts to defend his—and the mini-series’—oversimplified and distorted portrayals of Lincoln’s views on Emancipation, remain unconvincing to anyone who has read what has been published on the subject since the 1950s. Apparently Mr. Vidal has not considered LaWanda Cox’ milestone work, Lincoln and Black Freedom, or Gabor S. Boritt’s essay on Emancipation in his Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, or Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s recent scholarship. How, Mr. Vidal, could Lincoln have remained committed to the idea of deporting blacks to Africa until his dying days, while advancing the prospect of equal educational opportunities for free blacks in America, while urging a southern governor to allow blacks to vote? How could Lincoln have been desperately seeking a way to renege on Emancipation while at the same time spearheading the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery in the states not affected by the Proclamation?

The answer is, he could not have—and did not. Mr. Vidal has convinced himself that he has taken a legend and made of him a man. In reality, he has taken a myth and advanced in its place a countermyth that is as shrouded by misinformation as what it endeavors to revise. Mr. Vidal is the Sandburg of our times.

If I were indeed a “caption writer” I might label the novelist’s latest foray into the subject, “Picture of Confusion.”

Harold Holzer

Rye, New York

To the Editors:

Gore Vidal need not have troubled himself to compose a hysterical diatribe against “scholar-squirrels” in general and me in particular if he had not pretended to be one of those scholar-squirrels himself. “As for Lincoln and the other historical figures,” he wrote in the afterword of his Lincoln: A Novel, “I have reconstructed them from letters, journals, newspapers, diaries, etc.” Thus he gave the impression of having frequented dusty archives, pored over manuscripts and documents, and squirreled away his notes just like one of those contemptible professors. Later he implied that he was a greater Lincoln authority than Stephen B. Oates or any other academic historian except David Herbert Donald.

Actually, as I pointed out in my review, Vidal’s book is a potpourri of his own inventions and bits and pieces he has picked up from other authors—bits and pieces mostly long discredited. Few would question Vidal’s cleverness as a writer of fiction. Certainly I do not. A reviewer, as I suggested previously, would hardly be justified in pointing out inaccuracies in the book if its author had not claimed to be writing authentic history but, instead, had prefaced his story with the kind of disclaimer that some novelists make to the effect that any similarity between the novel’s characters and real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

To summarize my main criticisms of Vidal in the review to which he objects: For such a good historian, he often has unexpected difficulty in finding the historically appropriate word. At many points it is hard to know whether his version of Lincoln’s life and times is an outright invention, a dubious interpretation, or simply a mistake. He is wrong on big as well as little matters. He grossly distort’s Lincoln’s character and role in history by picturing him as ignorant of economics, disregardful of the Constitution, and unconcerned with the rights of blacks.

In his New York Review diatribe Vidal does not undertake to refute all my specifics but selects those in regard to which he thinks he has a case. This selectivity of his cannot be due to constrictions of space, for he maunders at great length with his ad hominem arguments—the kind of arguments a person commonly resorts to when his position is weak. Anyone interested in seeing which of my criticisms he evades entirely can find my review essay “Fiction as History” in The Journal of Southern History (February 1986) or in my Arguing with Historians: Essays on the Historical and the Unhistorical (1987).

As for Vidal’s attempted rebuttal, I confess I must yield him one point. I said he makes Lincoln so stupid as to think the Secretary of the Treasury personally signed every greenback. Instead, he makes Lincoln so stupid as to think the Treasurer of the United States did it. I’m afraid I misread Vidal there. But it is the only point I will concede to him in his entire screed.

I questioned his use of Briticisms when writing on a subject so distinctly American. He shows his characteristic preciosity when he replies that he prefers the Briticisms, and he shows his utter ignorance when he goes on to assert: “It was not until H.L. Mencken, in 1919, that an attempt was made to separate the American language from the English.” Apparently he has never heard of Noah Webster, who as early as 1789 urged his fellow Americans to “establish a national language [Webster’s emphasis] as well as a national government.” Webster proceeded to promote this cause through his spellers, readers, and dictionaries. By the time of the Civil War, millions of copies were in use and their influence on the language was profound.

Vidal stands stubbornly by his assertion that prostitutes got the name “hookers” because General Joseph Hooker was “so addicted…to the flesh.” I repeat that the term was in use before the Civil War. Originally a “hooker” was a resident of the Hook, that is, Corlear’s Hook, a whorehouse district that sailors frequented in New York City. I refer Vidal to Mitford M. Mathews’ A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, which incidentally will help him to understand the historical development of Americanisms as distinct from Briticisms.

Vidal pretends to do no more than rearrange “agreed-upon facts,” but he does not tell us who, besides himself and two readers of his manuscript, agreed upon them. He calls me “a master of the one-line unproved assertion” when I draw attention to his unproved and unprovable assertions. Consider this one: When issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln exempted certain Louisiana parishes and Virginia counties “as a favor” to “pro-Union” slaveholders. Here, as elsewhere, Vidal simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The fact is that Lincoln exempted those parts of Louisiana and Virginia, plus all of Tennessee, because the Union was in control of those areas. He justified the proclamation as a military necessity, a means of putting down the rebellion, and he did not consider the measure militarily justifiable in places where the rebellion had not occurred or where it had already been put down.

In his novel Vidal asserted that Ulysses S. Grant “had gone into the saddlery business, where he had attractively failed.” In my review I said Grant “had not failed in ‘the saddlery business.’ ” Now Vidal fudges by dismissing his statement as an “offhand remark” that he attributed “to a contemporary.” He further fuzzes up the issue by saying “the fact that harness and other leather goods were sold along with saddles by the failure Grant is a matter of no interest.” Of course, it is a matter of no interest. The point is that Grant had never gone into the saddlery, harness, or leather-goods business and therefore could not have failed at it. He was only an employee.

In any event, Vidal cannot weasel out of responsibility for his statements by attributing them to his characters, as he does in regard to Grant, the assassination plots, and other matters. He, after all, put the words into the mouths of his characters. Through what he had them say—and what he omitted having them say—he presented his own interpretation of Lincoln and his times.

Vidal persists in taking William H. Herndon’s every word as gospel. This trust in Herndon, as I noted in my reivew, is curiously naive for a person of Vidal’s reputed sophistication. I observed that the frequency of Lincoln’s bowel movements could not be documented. “But, of course, they can,” Vidal retorts. ” ‘Truth-teller’ Herndon tells us….”

Well, that “truth-teller” thought he recollected, in 1887, that Lincoln “had an evacuation…about once a weak [sic].” Now, how could Herndon have known? He was never inside the Lincoln house, to say nothing of the Lincoln privy. Vidal would have us believe that every time Lincoln defecated he reported it to Herndon and Herndon kept a careful record of it. Even assuming that Lincoln once told Herndon he had not shit for a week, we need not conclude from this that his frequency had thereby been set for life.

Again, Herndon is Vidal’s “primary source”—and indeed his only source—for the intimation that Lincoln had syphilis. That Lincoln had once confided this to him, Herndon professed to recall many years later, in 1891, when he vouchsafed the secret to his co-author Jesse W. Weik. “But,” as David Herbert Donald has observed in Lincoln’s Herndon (p. 349), “Weik was working with materials furnished…by an aging partner, whose memory for dates, places, and facts was frequently shaky.”

In response to my quoting statements he made on the Larry King radio show, Vidal objects that “nobody is under oath for what he says” on that kind of program. He seems to think he can shoot off his mouth with impunity whenever he has a microphone or a TV camera in front of him. On the NBC Today Show, March 26, 1988, he solemnly assured Jane Pauley and her millions of viewers that Mary Todd Lincoln, having contracted syphilis from her husband, suffered from paresis, which accounted for her emotional and mental difficulties. If Vidal had the slightest concern for truth, he could easily have learned from such a reference as The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy that Mrs. Lincoln’s symptoms and those of a paretic do not correspond.

Vidal displays his talent for distortion and deception most egregiously when dealing with Lincoln’s attitudes and policies with respect to blacks. In my review I said there was “no convincing evidence” for Vidal’s assertion that as late as April 1865 Lincoln was still planning to colonize freed slaves outside the United States. Vidal replies that I, myself, am one of his “authorities” for the very statement I question!

To try to make this point, he takes out of context a passage from my book The Lincoln Nobody Knows (1958). That book did not pretend to be a biography of Lincoln but, as the foreword made clear, was intended to “set forth several enigmas of his life, several issues which historians and biographers still dispute.” One of the disputed issues was (and is) the development of Lincoln’s attitudes and policies with respect to blacks.

In the passage that Vidal quotes, I said that Lincoln “seemed” to cling to the idea of colonizing freedmen. The quotation ends: “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 the feasibility of removing the colored population of the United States.” I did not there state it as my opinion or as an agreed-upon fact that Lincoln remained a colonizationist to the end of his life. I said this would appear to be so “if the rather dubious Ben Butler is to be believed”—a big “if.”

The question of Butler’s veracity has long since ceased to be one that scholarly historians or biographers dispute. An outstanding Lincoln authority has demonstrated that the conversation Butler claimed to have had with Lincoln never took place. See Mark E. Neely, Jr., “Abraham Lincoln and Black Colonization: Benjamin Butler’s Spurious Testimony,” in Civil War History (March 1979). If Vidal were the truth-seeker he professes to be, he could have looked that up for himself.

Not content with misrepresenting my position on the colonization matter, Vidal compounds his misrepresentation by making this charge: “What is going on here is a deliberate revision by Current not only of Lincoln but of himself in order to serve the saint of the 1980s as opposed to the saint of earlier times when blacks were still colored, having only just stopped being Negroes.” In The Lincoln Nobody Knows, though I did not give it as my personal opinion that Lincoln remained a colonizationist, I did present my own view a few pages later when I wrote: “Lincoln does deserve his reputation as emancipator.” And I concluded that same chapter with this as my considered judgment: “Lincoln, as a symbol of man’s ability to outgrow his prejudices, still serves the cause of human freedom. He will go on serving as long as boundaries of color hem in and hinder any man, any woman, any child.” Those words were written in the 1950s, not the 1980s.

Vidal is on to something, however, when he vaguely senses that (during the past three decades) historians have been revising parts of the Lincoln history, though he evidently does not know just who they are or what they have been doing. According to the revised view, Lincoln was fairly close to the Radical Republicans in his devotion to black rights—rather than diametrically opposed to the Radicals as in the older accounts.

The pioneer in this revisionism has been David Herbert Donald. Among other leading proponents of it are Harold Hyman, Hans Trefousse, James McPherson, Herman Belz, Peyton McCrary, LaWanda Cox, and Stephen Oates. They do not agree among themselves—nor do I agree with all of them—in every respect. (I expound my differences with them in Arguing with Historians.) But I freely confess that I have learned a great deal from those scholars and that, in the course of a long career, I have completely changed my mind about certain aspects of the Lincoln theme. Vidal might have done better if he, too, had paid some attention to the recent academic writers on the subject.

Vidal attempts, unwisely, to beat me over the head with Theodore S. Hamerow’s Reflections on History and Historians. Quoting not from Hamerow’s book itself but from a British historian’s review of it, he says “most professors of history do little research and less publishing” and what little they write is “mainly a parade of second-hand learning and third-rate opinions.” Now, Hamerow and I, friends for more than thirty-five years, have been fellow scholar-squirrels at both Illinois and Wisconsin. Hamerow knows what I have written. He tells me it is obvious that Vidal has not even read his book, and he asks me to say as emphatically as possible that he wishes in no way to be involved on Vidal’s side in this controversy.

Throughout his egocentric raving in The New York Review, Vidal poses as the one writer who dares to see Lincoln as he actually was—in contrast to the “hagiographers” who present a figure not only saintly but lifeless and flat. The truth is the reverse. Vidal has created an oversimplified and fragmentary character, while the nonfiction writers come much closer to depicting him as he really was, in all the complexities and ambiguities of his life and times. Readers who want to know the real Abraham Lincoln (as well as he can be known from a single volume) will turn to the biography by Benjamin P. Thomas or the one by Stephen B. Oates. Readers who prefer the fantasizings of a fictionist will continue to pick up Vidal’s book. They are welcome to it.

Richard N. Current

South Natick, Massachusetts

Gore Vidal replies:

It’s savory scholar-squirrel stew time again! Or, to be precise, one scholar-squirrel and one plump publicist pigeon for the pot. So, as the pot boils and I chop this pile of footnotes fine, let me explain to both pigeon and the no doubt bemused readers of these pages why it was that The New York Times, the Typhoid Mary of American journalism, should have wanted to discredit, one week before airing, the television dramatization of my book on Abraham Lincoln. The publicist (a caption-and-text writer for two Civil War picture-books that he shrewdly guesses I’ve never looked at) tells us that “the Times did not assign me to ‘bloody’ the mini-series…but to measure its faithfulness to history,” etc. This begs the question: why, if the Times were so uncharacteristically concerned with faithfulness to fact of any kind, should they select him, a nonhistorian, whose current job, he told me, disarmingly, is that of publicist for the admirable Mario Cuomo? I suspect that he was chosen because a publicist will give an editor exactly what he wants. In any case, my own long history with The New York Times does, in a curious way, illuminate not only this peculiar dispute but the rather more interesting nature of history itself.

In 1946, my first novel was published. A war novel, it was praised by the daily book reviewer of the Times, one Orville Prescott, whose power to “make or break” a book was then unique; and now unimaginable. I was made. Then, in 1948, two books were published within weeks of each other. First, The City and the Pillar by me; then Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, et al. In my novel, I found the love affair between two ordinary American youths to be a matter-of-fact and normal business. Dr. Kinsey then confirmed, statistically, that more than a third of the American male population had performed, at least once, a vile and abominable act against nature. Since the generation of American males that he was studying had just won the last great war that our sissy republic ever was to win (as R.M. Nixon would say, I mean “sissy” in the very best sense of that word), it was unthinkable that…. The polemic began; and goes on.

At the time, Orville Prescott told my publisher, Nicholas Wreden of E.P. Dutton, that he would never again read much less review a book by me. The Times then refused to advertise either my book or the Kinsey Report. True to Prescott’s word, my next five novels were not reviewed in the daily Times or, indeed, in Time or Newsweek. In freedom’s land what ought not to be is not and must be blacked out. I was unmade. For ten years I did television, theater, movies; then returned to the novel.

The war goes on, though with less spirit than in the old days when the Sunday editor of the Times, Lester Markel, canvassed five writers, among them my friend Richard Rovere, to see if one would “bloody” The Best Man, a play that their autonomous daily reviewer had liked. Finally, Douglass Cater wrote a mildly dissenting piece, which was duly published. Simultaneously, a writer was assigned to “bloody” my campaign for Congress in New York’s 29th District, a polity usually unnoticed by The New York Times; and then…and then…. Anyway, we need not believe the publicist when he says that he was not engaged to “bloody” the television Lincoln. Of course he was; and I fell into the trap.

The publicist wrote to tell me that he was writing about the television Lincoln and the problems of dramatized history. Since I had nothing to do with the production, I thought that the Times might be playing it straight. Plainly, I had lost my cunning. I was interviewed on the telephone. He asked me if I read historical novels. I said, almost never. I’m obliged to read history. A few moments later he said, “As you never read history….” I realized then that I’d been had yet again by the foxy old New York Times. I remarked upon the mysteriousness of history. Quoted Henry Adams’s famous summing up on the “why” and the “what.” The publicist got the quotation right but attributed it to Thoreau.

The headline of The New York Times story: “A FILTERED PORTRAIT OF LINCOLN COMES TO THE SMALL SCREEN.” Filtered is meant to indicate some sort of bias. A second headline was set up in type reminiscent of the National Enquirer: “The producers of the mini-series adapted it from Gore Vidal’s novel, a work already faulted by historians.” That was the best—and pretty good, too—that the Times could do to scare off viewers. The publicist’s story was dim. There was no mention of those historians who had praised Lincoln. The caption-writer found many things “troubling”; none of any consequence, except Lincoln’s attitude toward blacks.

The publicist tells us that “Lincoln hardly made” a shady bargain with Salmon P. Chase “to win his support for his 1864 re-election campaign, by offering him in return the job of chief justice.” I don’t recollect the phrase “shady bargain” in either book or drama. But if the publicist does not understand Lincoln’s devious game with Chase then he doesn’t understand politics in general or Lincoln in particular. Although Lincoln had ended Chase’s dream of being the Republican nominee that year, Chase could still have made trouble. Chase was also one of the few men in public life whom Lincoln genuinely disliked. In the summer of 1864, Chase, who had resigned as Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, was making overtures to the Democratic party: “This…might mean much,” he wrote, “if the Democrats would only cut loose from slavery and go for freedom…. If they would do that, I would cheerfully go for any man they might nominate.”1 Aware of Chase’s conniving, Lincoln confided to his secretary, John Hay, “What Chase ought to do is to help his successor through his installation…; go home without making any fight and wait for a good thing hereafter, such as a vacancy on the Supreme Bench or some such matter.”2

Lincoln played a lovely game with Chase; he even got him to stump Indiana and Ohio for him. He hinted to Chase’s friends that Chase was under serious consideration for the Chief Justiceship, which my publicist-critic thinks impossible because the Chief Justice was still alive. Unknown to the caption-writer, the Chief Justice, Roger B. Taney, was eighty-seven years old that summer and poorly. The new president was bound to make the appointment. So there was a lot of maneuvering, by the dark of the moon, on Lincoln’s part to put Chase, in his daughter’s phrase, “on the shelf.” In exchange for not rocking the boat (supporting McClellan, say) Chase became Chief Justice after Taney’s death, which was after the election. Was Chase chosen because he was the best man for the job? No, he was not. Politics is bargains and their shadiness depends entirely on which side of the street you happen to be standing.

The publicist’s confusions about Lincoln and slavery and what I am supposed to have written are simply hortatory. He seems to think that I think that Lincoln was “desperately seeking a way to renege on Emancipation while at the same time spearheading the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery.” This is OK for The New York Times but not for a responsible paper. Neither I nor the dramatizers ever suggested that he wanted to renege, desperately or not, on Emancipation. It will also come as news to any Lincoln scholars that the saint “spearheaded” the Thirteenth Amendment. He favored it. The spear carriers were abolitionists, Radical Republicans. But Lincoln and the blacks is the crux of all this nonsense, and I shall address the question in due course.

From the tone of Professor Richard N. Current’s letter I fear that I may have hurt his feelings. In a covering letter to the editors, he refers to my “personal attack” on him. As Current is as unknown to me as Lincoln was to him in his book The Lincoln Nobody Knows, I could hardly have been personal. I thought my tone in the last exchange sweetly reasonable if necessarily disciplinary. I am sorry he finds “hysterical” my “diatribe.” What I was obliged to do in his case was to take, one by one, his flat assertions that such-and-such as written by me (often it wasn’t) was untrue; and so great does he feel his emeritus weight that that was that.

Finally, about halfway through I gave up answering him. Now he is at it again. He tells us that I have “pretended” to be a scholar-squirrel; I give the impression (false it would seem) that I have visited libraries and looked at old newspapers, etc. Now, in the case of Lincoln, I have relied heavily on the diaries of John Hay and Salmon P. Chase since I observe Lincoln from the viewpoint of each. Current seems to think that I could not possibly have read these diaries despite internal evidence to the contrary. As for old newspapers, I used a reporter’s shorthand version of the Gettysburg Address, which differs somewhat from the official text. But, by and large, I have always relied heavily on the work of scholars in my reflections on American history and, in a way, I have become their ideal reader because I have no professional ax to grind, no tenure to seek, no prizes or fellowships to win.

How does a scholar differ from a scholar-squirrel? The squirrel is a careerist who mindlessly gathers little facts for professional reasons. I don’t in the least mind this sort of welfare for the “educated” middle class. They must live, too. But when they start working in concert to revise history to suit new political necessities, I reach for my ancient Winchester.

Current tells us that “[Vidal] implied that he was a greater Lincoln authority than Stephen B. Oates or any other academic historian except David Herbert Donald.” As I pointed out in the last exchange, it was Newsweek that found me to be (in reference to Lincoln’s alleged syphilis) a better historian than Mr. Oates, whom I have never read. I do not “imply” (Current has a guardhouse lawyer’s way with weasel-words) that I am a better historian than anyone. This is the sort of thing that obsesses academic careerists. Scholar-squirrels spend their lives trying to be noted and listed and graded and seeded because such rankings determine their careers. Those of us engaged in literature and, perhaps, in history as well don’t think in such terms. We also don’t go on Pulitzer Prize committees to give a friend a prize which, in due course, when he is on the committee, he will give us for our squirrelings.

Current feels that I “grossly distort” Lincoln by showing him “as ignorant of economics, disregardful of the Constitution, and unconcerned with the rights of blacks.” Even a casual reading of Lincoln shows that I spend quite a lot of time demonstrating the President’s concern with the rights of blacks, and where and how they should be exercised. Disregardful of the Constitution? No other president until recent years has shown so perfect a disregard for that document in the guise of “military necessity.” The Chief Justice himself thought the President so disregardful that he hurled the Constitution at his head. Lincoln just ducked; and the corpus of one Mr. Merryman of Baltimore was not delivered up for trial, as the Chief Justice had ordered. I should like Current to demonstrate (elsewhere, please) Lincoln’s mastery of economics. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness by Paul Simon (yes, the Illinois senator),3 where he records Lincoln’s activities in the state House of Representatives. During four terms, Lincoln and eight other school-of-Clay legislators, known as “the long Nine,” nearly bankrupted the state with a “Big Improvements” bill that it took Illinois forty-five years to pay off. The story about Lincoln’s confusions over who signed the greenbacks occurs in Sandburg; and is public domain.4 I’m sorry if Current finds my last “screed” somewhat “maundering” but there are a limited number of ways of saying “false” without actually using the word.

Current, lord of language, wants Lincoln to be Will Rogers, all folksy and homey. But Lincoln’s own language resounds with what Current calls “Briticisms.” Lincoln’s prose was drenched in Shakespeare. Of course, H.L. Mencken was not the first to try to separate American English from English. But in our country, he has been the prime instigator. Finally, prose is all a matter of ear. A word like “screed,” for instance, is now used only by the semiliterate when they want to sound highfalutin, usually in the course of a powerful letter to the editor.

We shall go no further into the word “hooker” other than to observe that a word, in different contexts, picks up additional meanings. A copperhead is a snake is a traitor is a Democrat, depending on the year the word is used and the user. One authority gives a New York origin for “hooker.” In Washington, in the Civil War, General Hooker’s name added new resonance. Another authority says the word comes from the verb “to hook,” as the whores in London hooked arms with potential customers as a means of introduction.

Current affects not to understand what I mean by “agreed-upon facts” as the stuff of history. He would like the reader to think that I invent something and get someone to agree to it. The point to my long disquisition on The New York Times is to show that one cannot trust any primary source. If the Times says that I said Thoreau wrote something that Henry Adams actually wrote, my “error” becomes a fact because the Times is a primary source for scholar-squirrels—scholars, too. To take at face value any newspaper story is to be dangerously innocent. But one can’t challenge everything that has ever been printed. So, through weariness and ignorance, there is a general consensus, which then becomes what I call an “agreed-upon” fact. We all decide not to worry it. Yet in two standard biographies of John Hay, though the writers agree upon the year of his birth, each gives a different natal month. I have also found that whenever I do make a mistake in writing about history, it is usually because I have followed an acknowledged authority who turns out wrong.

On Emancipation and the exemption of certain areas for political reasons: Lincoln maintained slavery in the slave states within the Union and freed those in the Confederacy. Current is more than usually confused here. He thinks Lincoln maintained slavery in “liberated” or “restored” sections of Louisiana because the Union controlled these counties and no political necessity was involved. Like so many hagiographers, Current refuses to face the fact that before Lincoln became a saint he was a superb politician. He did nothing without political calculation. He was also a master of telling different people different things, causing no end of trouble for later worshipers who can’t deal with all the contradictions. Emancipation was as much a political as a military necessity for Lincoln. For instance, when Lincoln appointed the pro-slavery Edward Stanly governor of occupied North Carolina, it was with the understanding that Lincoln would not interfere with slavery in the states. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, according to one professor of history,

Stanly went to Washington intending to resign. After several talks with Lincoln, however, Stanly was satisfied. He returned to his job, but first he called at the office of James C. Welling, editor of the National Intelligencer. Welling wrote in his diary: “Mr. Stanly said that the President had stated to him that the proclamation had become a civil necessity to prevent the Radicals from openly embarrassing the government in the conduct of the war.”

So Lincoln speaks with forked tongue in this passage from Richard N. Current’s The Lincoln Nobody Knows.5 Personally, I’d not have let this agreed-upon fact sail so easily by. Wouldn’t Stanly lie to Welling, to explain his behavior? Or might Welling have misunderstood what Stanly said Lincoln said? Or, unthinkable thought, could Lincoln have lied to Stanly? Current accepts too readily a story highly discreditable to the Great Emancipator he would now have us worship in all his seamless integrity.

Here comes Grant again. One thing about Current, he knows not defeat. I “asserted that Ulysses S. Grant ‘had gone into the saddlery business, where he had attractively failed.’ ” The “assertion” in the novel was John Hay’s, in an idle moment, about a man he knew nothing much of in 1862. Triumphantly, Current now writes, “The point is that Grant had never gone into the saddlery, harness, or leather-goods business and therefore could not have failed at it. He was only an employee.” This is the sort of thing that gives mindless pedantry a bad name. Even in Current’s super American English, it is possible to fail at a job by being fired or being carried if your father owns the place. “At thirty-seven Grant had to go back [home] and admit that he was still a failure: the boy who could not bargain for a horse had become a man who could not bring in a crop of potatoes or collect a batch of bills. It was humiliating.”6 After a year as a clerk, under the managership of his younger brother, Grant was saved by the war and, as he himself wrote, “I never went into our leather store after the meeting” (where he got his command), “to put up a package or do other business.”

But note the Current technique throughout this supremely unimportant business. He zeroes in on an idle remark by someone who knows nothing about Grant other than his failure in civilian life, most recently in leather goods. The man who said it is a character living in history not looking back on it. Current seems to think that I should supply the indifferent Hay with the full and absolute knowledge of Grant’s affairs that a scholar-squirrel could find out but a contemporary stranger could hardly have known. Owing to Current’s uneasy grasp of any kind of English he seems to think that to fail at a business means you must own the business and go broke. That’s one meaning. But you can also fail by losing your job or by being tolerated as a hopeless employee by your family. Current wonders why I don’t answer more of his charges. They are almost all of them as specious as this.

One of the signs of obsession is an inability to tell the difference between what matters and what does not. The obsessed gives everything the same weight. Current juggles words this way and that to try to “prove” what is often pointless and unprovable. There is an issue here but he can’t focus on it. The issue is Lincoln and the blacks. The United States was then and is now a profoundly racist society that pretends not to be and so requires the likes of Current to disguise the American reality from the people, while menacing the society’s critics, most successfully, it should be noted, within the academy where the squirrels predominate. I shall indulge Current on two minor points and then get to what matters.

Lincoln’s bowels. This occupies a few lines in my book. It is necessary to mention the subject because one of Booth’s conspirators tried to poison Lincoln’s laxative, which was made up at Thompson’s drugstore: whether or not prescription clerk David Herold actually poisoned the medicine is not agreed upon.7 Current thinks that constipation is a central theme to the book, the Emancipator as Martin Luther. Herndon tells us: “Mr. Lincoln had an evacuation, a passage, about once a week, ate blue mass. Were you to read his early speeches thoroughly and well, you could see his, then, coarse nature, his materialism, etc.” That’s all. Since Herndon shared an office with Lincoln for seventeen years there is no reason for this subject not to have been mentioned. After all, many of Lincoln’s famed funny stories concerned the outhouse. Current should read them. Also, Current might have given some thought to the sentence after constipation—Lincoln’s early “coarse nature, his materialism”: this is provocative.

But Current is now prey to obsession: “Vidal would have us believe that every time Lincoln defecated he reported it to Herndon.” I would not have anyone believe such a thing since Herndon in my book makes no mention of Lincoln’s bowels, a subject of interest only to the putative poisoners. I fear Current is now sailing right round the bend. He claims that I said on NBC’s Today show (he seems to be watching rather too much TV) that Lincoln definitely gave Mary Todd syphilis and that she had died of paresis that had affected the brain. He quotes me as saying that one is not “under oath” on television so that one can presumably tell lies. When I say I’m not under oath, I mean that I’m free to speculate on matters that cannot be proven. I would not write that Lincoln gave his wife syphilis, but I can certainly, in conversation, give an opinion. Since my book stops in 1865 and Mary Todd didn’t die until 1882, I never tried to “prove” the subject. But years ago a doctor friend in Chicago told me that an autopsy had been performed on Mrs. Lincoln (but only on the head, an odd procedure even then) and that the brain was found to have physically deteriorated, ruling out mere neurosis, the usual explanation for her behavior. I didn’t write about this and have never followed it up. If Current can tear himself away from the Larry King show, he might have a go at it.

As for Lincoln’s syphilis, I use the words Herndon himself used: “About the year 1835–36 Mr. Lincoln went to Beardstown and during a devilish passion had connection with a girl and caught the disease [syphilis]. Lincoln told me this…. About the year 1836–37 Lincoln moved to Springfield…. At this time I suppose that the disease hung to him and, not wishing to trust our physicians, he wrote a note to Doctor Drake.” Since there is no reason for Herndon to lie about this, I suppose we should all agree upon it as a fact. But since no saint has ever had syphilis, Herndon is a liar and so the consensus finds against him. I don’t much admire this sort of thing. Current, Historian and Master of the American Language, now reveals another facet to a protean nature that nobody knows: Current, Diagnostician:

If Vidal had the slightest concern for truth, he could easily have learned from such a reference as The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy that Mrs. Lincoln’s symptoms and those of a paretic do not correspond.

This is a brave leap in the dark and, once again, Current, the Mr. Magoo of the History Department, lands on his face. From the Merck Manual:

General paresis or demential paralytica generally affects patients in their 40s and 50s. The onset is usually insidious and manifested by behavior changes. It also may be present with convulsions or epileptic attacks and there may be aphasia or a transient hemiparesis. Changes in the patient include irritability, difficulty in concentration, memory deterioration, and defective judgment. Headaches and insomnia are associated with fatigue and lethargy. The patient’s appearance becomes shabby, unkempt, and dirty; emotional instability leads to frequent weeping and temper tantrums; neurasthenia, depression, and delusions of grandeur with lack of insight may be present.

This exactly describes Mrs. Lincoln’s behavior as reported by contemporaries and by such sympathetic biographers as Ruth Painter Randall and the Turners.8 I am in Current’s debt for leading me to this smoking, as it were, gun. But where, I wonder, is the autopsy report? Could Robert Lincoln have destroyed all copies? Has Walter Reed collected it in its great presidential net?

Current admits to changing his mind about Lincoln in the course of many years of squirreling. But although he no longer holds to his views on Lincoln and the blacks as presented in The Lincoln Nobody Knows (a book, he’ll be relieved to know, I never took very seriously, largely because of the megalomaniacal title in which he has inserted himself), he does find, as do I, disconcerting the way that Lincoln lovers (no hater would be allowed tenure anywhere in bravery’s home) keep changing the image to conform to new policies. When the civil rights movement took off in the Sixties, uppity blacks toyed with the notion that Lincoln was a honkie (Julius Lester, in Look Out, Whitey!, etc.). Immediately the agreed-upon facts of earlier times (colonize the freed slaves, reimburse the slave owners, etc.) had to be papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place, so that LaWanda Cox could deliver a new verdict: “There is no mistaking the fact that by 1865 Lincoln’s concern for the future of the freed people was directed to their condition and rights at home, rather than abroad.”9

This is the new line, and I have no particular quarrel with it. But certain hagiographers are now pretending that Lincoln was never serious about colonization, which is a falsification of the record. In Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress (December 1, 1862) he said: “I cannot make it better known than it is, that I strongly favor colonization.” Certainly for the first two years of his administration Lincoln was mad on the subject. Gradually, he seems to have let the notion go because of the logistical impossibility of shipping out three or four million people who were less than enthusiastic about a long sea voyage to the respective wilds of Haiti, Panama, Liberia.

Current says that he “did not…state it as my opinion…that Lincoln remained a colonizationist.” That was wise, because no one knows. I don’t give my personal view either though I did note (but did not write) that usually when Lincoln started in on the necessity of reimbursing the slave owners, colonization was seldom far behind: the two seemed twinned in his head. The revisionists now admired by Current maintain that the only evidence that Lincoln at the end was still pondering colonization is Ben Butler’s testimony that the President mentioned it to him some time after February 3, 1865. I found most intriguing Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s case that Lincoln could not have talked to Butler at the time that Butler says he did, because Butler had written Secretary of War Stanton a letter assuring him that he had stayed in New York until March 23, in conformance with War Department policy that forbade officers from visiting the capital without permission.10 This is a scholarly not squirrelly finding. But if one is to factor out Butler as a crucial witness because he is a liar, why believe the letter to Stanton? If Dan Sickles and other general officers slipped into town without permission, why not the irrepressible Butler? My point is that when one decides a source is apt to be untrue (Herndon, Butler, The New York Times), how does one choose what to believe—if anything—from the discredited source?

I understand the politics behind the current (no pun) revisionists but I think they rather overdo it. One dizzy squirrel claims that after 1862, Lincoln discarded the idea of colonization with indecent haste. Yet July 1, 1864, John Hay writes, “I am glad the President has sloughed off that idea of colonization.”11 For obvious reasons, the revisionists never quote the next sentence. “I have always thought it a hideous & barbarous humbug & the thievery of Pomeroy and Kock have about converted him to the same belief.” This sounds a lot more tentative than the revisionists would like us to believe. Perhaps they will now have to establish that Hay is untrustworthy.

In any event, when the black separatist movement starts up in the next decade, new revisionists will supersede the present lot, and Butler’s probity will be rehabilitated and Lincoln the colonizer reestablished.

On the dust jacket, between the title Lincoln and my name there is a one-inch-high caveat: A Novel. I tell the story of Lincoln’s presidency from the imagined points of view of his wife, of E.B. Washburne, John Hay, Salmon P. Chase, and, marginally, David Herold, one of the conspirators. I never enter Lincoln’s mind and, unlike the historian or biographer, I do not make magisterial judgments or quibble with others in the field. The five points of view were dictated, in the case of Hay and Chase, because they kept diaries, skimpily I fear, and many of their letters are available. What I aimed to achieve was balance. Hay admired Lincoln, Chase hated him, Mary Todd loved him, and so on. Each sees him in a different way, under different circumstances.

I am also reflecting upon the nature of fact as observed in fiction, and, indeed, fiction in fact. That is why the scholar-squirrels fascinate me much more than the scholars because they are like barometers, ever responsive to any change in the national weather. This bad period in American history has been, paradoxically, a good period for American history writing. There have never been so many intelligent biographies (yes, they are often written in academe but not by the squirrels) and interesting historians. But pure history, if such a thing could be, is flawed because “history will never reveal to us what connections there are, and at what times, between….” For the novelist it is the imagining of connections that brings life to what was. Finally, “History,” as Tolstoy also observed, “would be an excellent thing if only it were true.” Perhaps, in the end, truth is best imagined, particularly if it is firmly grounded in the disagreed- as well as agreed-upon facts.

My side of these exchanges is now complete. Let others argue elsewhere.

  1. 1

    See Robert B. Warden, An Account of the Private Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase (Cincinnati, 1874), p. 627.

  2. 2

    Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay (Dodd, Mead, 1939), p. 203.

  3. 3

    Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965).

  4. 4

    Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (Harcourt, Brace, 1939), Volume 1.

  5. 5

    McGraw-Hill (1958), p. 227.

  6. 6

    William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (Norton, 1981), p. 64.

  7. 7

    Louis J. Weichmann, A True History of the Assassination (Vintage, 1977), p. 44.

  8. 8

    Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Little, Brown, 1953); Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, eds., Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (Knopf, 1972).

  9. 9

    LaWanda Cox, Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership (University of South Carolina Press, 1981), p. 23.

  10. 10

    Mark E. Neely, Jr., “Abraham Lincoln and Black Colonization: Benjamin Butler’s Spurious Testimony,” Civil War History, Vol. XXV (March 1979), pp. 77–83.

  11. 11

    Diaries and Letters of John Hay, p. 203.

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