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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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‘On Board Their First Prize’; illustration by True Williams from the first edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876

From this masterful paragraph, in which the outrage builds to crescendo through a long and angry alliterative sentence (“hands of a hundred,” “different and distant,” “mind and matter”), Charyn plucks two fragments, and alters them:

All the powers on earth seem rapidly combining against the colored man. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and they have him bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys.

The point of this comparison is not to hold the novelist accountable to the historian’s standard of accuracy. But the cutting and pasting of Lincoln’s words, and the conversion of his extended and eloquent rage into a sound bite, are jarring to the ear—at least to mine.

Further on in the book, Charyn pulls a couple of famous phrases (“mystic chords of memory,” “better angels of our nature”) from the first Inaugural Address, inserting them into Lincoln’s reminiscence of the occasion. But he gives little hint of the political drama from which those carefully conciliatory words emerged. Facing a fractured nation from which seven states had already seceded, the new president had circulated a belligerent draft among his advisers, who variously tampered with and tempered it. Lincoln was trying to produce a document that would satisfy multiple audiences: the seceded states, others teetering on secession, the border states (at that time still including Virginia) whose loyalty was indispensable to any hope of peacefully restoring the Union, as well as Northern critics on the left who thought he was weak and timid, and critics on the right who thought he was rash. Charyn, of course, has no obligation to include any of this in his story—but this sort of omission (there are many others) tends to create a distorted sense of a man for whom the unrelenting test of political crisis is reduced to a distraction.

Sometimes “the cavalcade of dire news” from the outside world does break through, but the novel mostly leapfrogs over public events in order to get on with the private story. When Charyn has Lincoln declare, back in Illinois in 1854, that he has “unwhigged myself and joined the Abolitionists” (something the actual Lincoln, wary then of abolition, would not have said), we get no real sense of what drives him to “declare war on [Stephen] Douglas and the Democrats”—neither of his personal ambition nor of his principled disgust at Douglas’s proposal that slavery be permitted to spread into hitherto free territory if local voters consented to it.

Later, the narrative jumps abruptly from the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, to the great speech delivered at the Gettysburg battlefield more than eleven months later, in mid-November—with hardly a mention of the horrific fighting that took place there in early July, or what was at stake in the result. Again, the trouble is not that Charyn exercises his novelist’s license to compress, elide, invent, or even delete the Lincoln of whom Herndon wrote that his “feelings…swelled within and came near stifling utterance” when he spoke of slavery. The problem is not that Charyn’s Lincoln is a different man from Herndon’s. The problem is that he is a lesser man.

One thing this fictional Lincoln does talk about fluently and frequently is sex—something, perhaps, that the real Lincoln may have done with fellow lawyers while riding the circuit, or with his friend Joshua Speed when sharing a room or a bed. But to whom would he have said of Mary Todd that “I…couldn’t get her fat little tail out of my mind, even while I was addressing a jury,” and that, at home after court adjourned, “I’d imagine her dancing without a stitch, and pull on my root half the night”? To whom is he talking when he says of the same woman, now his wife and a mother devastated by the loss of two sons?

I hadn’t sniffed her flesh in such a long time. I was randy as a goat after she unbuckled my belt, and licked that gorge between her bosoms. She lay there like a luminous ghost, never moved once, but moaned with a child’s delight.

Is it prudish to wonder if this, as the phrase goes, is too much information? The issue here is not one of propriety but of what might be called rhetorical design. Charyn has taken a man who had exquisite control of language and turned him into a voluble drinking buddy who worries aloud about premature ejaculation (how long will he manage to hold back his “jelly”?), or that his prospective bride will be shocked at a dinner dance by his evident erection (she doesn’t seem to mind). This book puts us in a position somewhere between Lincoln’s bartender and his therapist, and since we are neither, there is a risk of making the reader—this reader, anyway—squirm.

3.

It is always a challenge to write about a great writer, if only because one’s own words, placed on the page beside those of the master, cannot compete. But Charyn has compounded the difficulty by writing in Lincoln’s first-person voice—a decision both brave and brazen. He tells us in the Author’s Note that what he is after is “that strange mix of the vernacular and the formal tones of a man who had only a few months of learning at a ‘blab school’ and had to teach himself.” The voice he settles on is “the voice Huck Finn might have had as an adult.”

The affiliation of Lincoln with Mark Twain is also an old notion. In a memorial essay written in 1910, Twain’s close friend William Dean Howells called him “the Lincoln of our literature.” When Perry Miller, in 1958, wrote that Lincoln used public humor to ease his private sadness, he likened him in this respect to Twain. When Garry Wills, in 1992, described Lincoln’s oratory, he credited him with having “created a political prose for America, to rank with the vernacular excellence of Twain.”

It’s a risky business to try to emulate Twain’s prose, which, in any case, was a different instrument, deployed for different purposes, than Lincoln’s. Another recent novel indebted to Twain, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013), is in some respects a riff on the episode in Huckleberry Finn when Huck goes ashore in girl’s clothing to scout out whether he and Jim are thought to have died. But if Twain has as much presence in The Good Lord Bird as he does in I Am Abraham, McBride takes a safer course by giving his protagonist, the violent abolitionist John Brown, relatively few words confined to reported dialogue, and by telling the tale in a Huckish voice that belongs to a black boy whom Brown mistakes for a girl. The effect is to reserve for his hero—or whatever exactly Brown is—a degree of mystery.

Mystery is what is missing from I Am Abraham. The book is daringly imagined, written with exuberance, and with a remarkable command of historical detail. It gives us a human Lincoln besieged by vividly drawn enemies and allies, from the peacock General George McClellan, who torments him with phony deference, to the loyal Billy Herndon, who brawls with anyone who insults his old friend. Placing Lincoln within the web of ordinary and sometimes petty human relations is no small achievement, since the man is so often invoked as either a folksy cliché or an immaculate icon, barely more alive than the renderings in marble or bronze or the posed photographs by which we know him.

But there is also something trivializing here. This Lincoln talks too much. He is too self-exposing—as if Hannibal were to come back complaining of sore buttocks from too much riding upon elephants, or Shakespeare were to drop by the pub to explain over a pint just exactly what he and “Mr. W.H.” liked to do between the sheets. The real Lincoln knew when to say less as well as when to say more. Charyn’s Lincoln could have learned something from him about what to conceal and what to reveal in the service of persuasion.

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