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The New Adventures of Abe

1.

Anyone who writes about Lincoln has a problem: his story is so well known that it’s all but impossible to tell it with suspense or surprise. In their 2012 movie, Lincoln, Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg solved this problem by focusing on a single episode, the struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, whose details were unlikely to be known in advance by most people watching the film.

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Meserve-Kunhardt Collection
Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, 1846

But there is a second problem. Lincoln is so wrapped up in smothering epithets—Honest Abe, Rail Splitter, Great Emancipator, Father Abraham—that there’s a temptation to break through to something fresh by applying a corrosive dose of iconoclasm to the layers of myth. That is what Richard Hofstadter did in the mid-twentieth century when, with Lincoln’s reputation flying high, he pointed out that a strong motive behind the movement to stop the expansion of slavery was “Negrophobia,” which Lincoln, one of “the world’s great political propagandists,” shrewdly exploited. A few years later Edmund Wilson, in his brilliantly irreverent book about the Civil War, Patriotic Gore (1962), wrote that Lincoln, celebrated for his humility, was actually a man of overweening pride, convinced “of his own superiority” as he drove the nation headlong into the bloodbath.

In the effort to say something new about Lincoln, novelists would seem to have an advantage over historians. As the philosopher R.G. Collingwood wrote in The Idea of History (1946), the historian “stands in a peculiar relation to something called evidence,” which leaves him free to interpret but forbidden to invent. The novelist, on the other hand, can take liberties—suppressing this, embellishing that, even inventing situations, characters, and words that were never actually spoken. He has “a single task only: to construct a coherent picture, one that makes sense.” A novel is beholden to no external measure of truth; it must only be true to itself.

It turns out that meeting this internal standard is no small order. Among novelists who have been drawn to Lincoln, some have tried to meet it by sticking close to what’s known about him, as Gore Vidal did in Lincoln (1984), which approached the “Tycoon” (the name given to the president by his secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay) through the documented perspectives of advisers, allies, and rivals. Others have tried counterfactual narrative, as when Stephen Carter, in The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), imagined what might have happened had Lincoln survived Booth’s bullet and been charged with botching the reconstruction of the postwar South. Still others have abandoned all pretense of historical fidelity, as did Seth Grahame-Smith in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010), a sinister fantasy in which bloodsucking becomes a metaphor for draining the nation of vitality and the will to survive. With variable success, all these books try to bring alive the essentials of Lincoln’s story: the quest for power, the burden of responsibility, the loneliness.

2.

Now comes Jerome Charyn, a fearless writer who for fifty years has turned out everything from detective stories to graphic novels, plays and screenplays, film criticism, TV scripts, a book about Ping-Pong (of which he has been a ranked player), and, most recently, a fictional portrait of Emily Dickinson as a sort of New England Lady Chatterley eager to flee the drawing room into the wild with any man willing to show her the way. Given Charyn’s adventurous imagination, there is no sure way to anticipate what he might do with Lincoln.

But there are hints. The oracular title, I Am Abraham, signals that he will be writing in Lincoln’s own voice—a promise to give us access to the inner life of a man who left no diary or memoir, and whose surviving letters, even if nominally private, almost exclusively address public matters. Skipping ahead to the “Author’s Note” at the end of the volume, one learns of Charyn’s surprise at how much he is drawn to Lincoln, whom he once disliked as a “backwoods saint.” It was his encounter with “a book about Lincoln’s lifelong depression” that convinced him to give Abe a second chance. That book was presumably Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy (2005), although for some reason Charyn does not name it.

The idea that Lincoln was beset by dark moods is an old one. In 1886, Lincoln’s law partner and friend William Herndon wrote that during their partnership forty years earlier, Lincoln fell periodically into “a sad terribly gloomy state,” sometimes so severe that he could barely speak. For Charyn, this aspect of the man provided a point of connection to “my own crippling bouts of depression,” and inspired him to seek the private man about whom the public man remained resolutely silent.

Many writers since Herndon have developed the theme of Lincoln’s secret subjection to depression, as when the great intellectual historian Perry Miller, also a man of rocketing and crashing moods, wrote that Lincoln “used comedy…to mask a black melancholy.” But in Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Shenk put forward a different thesis about how Lincoln coped with his affliction. He argued that when Lincoln felt despair closing in, he found an escape route through politics. By committing himself to some high public purpose he discovered “the key that unlocked the gates of a mental prison.” This is a benign variant on Edmund Wilson’s idea that Lincoln, envisioning himself as a Napoleonic half-hero, half-monster, was driven by a need to exert ferocious power upon the world. Wilson derived the idea from one of Lincoln’s early speeches, delivered when he was not yet thirty years old, in which he predicted the rise of a demagogue “of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition to push it to the utmost stretch,” against whom the nation would have to defend itself. What Shenk saw in Lincoln was a man who conquered his private demons through public service. What Wilson saw in him was an unconscious fear of himself.

Charyn’s Lincoln is a version of both—though a pale one. He is indignant at the injustice of slavery but shows no particular zeal for politics as a means to attack slavery. In looking to the past for examples of great men afflicted but undefeated by anxiety, he finds a kindred spirit in Julius Caesar, whose “look of misery—before most battles…wouldn’t wear off until he dipped his armor in enemy blood”—but his own martial appetite is not a big one. For Charyn’s Lincoln there is no clear or consistent relation between private moods and public purposes. His bouts of depression are as transient as they are frequent, and they seem to lift with the weather:

I took to bed that January, while the Legislature was still in session. I couldn’t bear to watch the dark descend upon Springfield. I lay near the lamp and never wandered, not even when Joshua [Speed] brought me a bowl of soup.
It was the weather that helped me by littles. It rained less, and the dark storms subsided near the end of January.

He has many names for his fits of despondency—“the blue unholies,” or simply “the unholies,” or “the hypos” (a common term at the time, which Ishmael, in Moby-Dick (1851), uses to describe his search for relief by going to sea). The dark moods are usually set off by some personal fear or loss—the death of his first love, Anne Rutledge, or his mixture of desire and doubt during his courtship of Mary Todd, or the descent toward death of his beloved son Willie twelve years after he and Mary had lost their second son, Edward.

Charyn writes very well about these trials, especially the death of Willie, who is tended by an army surgeon so depleted by what he has seen in the war that “the color had bled from his eyes, like a salmon trout on a silver hook.” When Willie’s corpse is washed and dressed by Elizabeth Keckly, the dignified former slave who works as an aide to Mrs. Lincoln, Charyn describes her bending over the dead child, “moving with a marvelous, mournful rhythm, as if her hands could drum a little life into him.” Of Mrs. Lincoln, he writes, “she hated the corridors where Willie had walked, the servants who had looked into Willie’s eyes, the very walls that had witnessed his pranks….” We get a sense of how personal bereavement can block the whole world from view, even as just beyond the inner circle of mourning scores of thousands were being engulfed by a rising ocean of death.

In the Author’s Note, Charyn tells us that he wanted to write “a family chronicle, where the fury of war and politics rumble in the background.” This is indeed what he has done. He shows us Lincoln going from exasperation to fury as “Mrs. President” flirts with secessionist sympathizers and even with outright spies. He shows us Lincoln’s vexed relations with his oldest son, Robert, who feels diminished in his father’s shadow and “caged in” by his mother’s “beau ideal of him, the Harvard man from Illinois.” Meanwhile, public events whizz by as if we were on a fast train from which nothing close can be glimpsed for more than a split second and everything beyond the foreground looks indistinct and small.

There is, for instance, a brief scene with the rebel-friendly mayor of Baltimore, who, having been arrested for sedition, accuses Lincoln of “tramplin’ on the law and suspendin’ habeas corpus.” But we read nothing about the political storm that broke over Lincoln as he was accused of violating civil liberties in the name of national security—a charge whose merits historians are still debating. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—the event by which Lincoln was “aroused” (his own word) to re-enter politics (he had served one term in Congress in the late 1840s)—is mentioned only in a passing paragraph. The same is true of the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the case of Dred Scott, which declared that all black people were “beings of an inferior order” who possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”—a judgment that provoked one of Lincoln’s most passionate speeches, in which he spoke of the plight of anyone in America born black:

All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.
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