Walt Whitman elegized Lincoln as “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” “The actual Lincoln was cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant,” according to Gore Vidal’s brief meditation on the martyr president in The Second American Revolution and Other Essays: 1976–1982. That somber “Note” by Vidal gave us a Lincoln “at heart…a fatalist, a materialist” who “knew when to wait; when to act.” This is the Lincoln of Vidal’s superb novel, celebrated by the author as the master politician who invented what is now in crisis, the American nation-state.
If I count accurately, this is Vidal’s nineteenth novel and thirtieth book, and he is (or is going on) fifty-nine. I have read thirteen of the novels, and two books of essays, which may be enough to yield some reasonable estimate of at least the relative nature of his achievement, if only to see how his work might be placed, so far. Though Vidal has a substantial audience, which certainly will be augmented by Lincoln, he has had rather mixed esteem among the most serious readers whom I know. I myself found his fiction very readable but not greatly memorable until the appearance of his ninth novel, Julian, which seems to me still a beautifully persuasive historical tale, a poignant portrait of the Emperor Julian, known forever as the Apostate by the Christian tradition that he rejected and abandoned.
Of the earlier novels, I had read only the first, Williwaw, and the third, The City and the Pillar, both refreshing, but then I was disappointed by the book just before Julian, an ambitious yet sketchy work that courageously was entitled Messiah. What the far more powerful Julian showed, I thought, was that Vidal lacked invention, and so was most gifted at reimagining history. The political and historical Washington, D.C., which followed Julian, seemed to confirm this intimation, since everything and everyone weakest in it was of Vidal’s own creation. But I underestimated Vidal badly. Myra Breckinridge followed, an apocalyptic farce that rivals Nathanael West’s A Cool Million and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, three outrageous travesties that will outlive many of the more celebrated visions of our century. After many readings, Myra Breckinridge continues to give wicked pleasure, and still seems to have fixed the limit beyond which the most advanced aesthetic neopornography ever can go.
Myra compelled a revisionary estimate of Vidal, who had powerfully demonstrated that superb invention was his strength, provided that the modes were farce and fantasy. The polemic of Myra remains the best embodiment of Vidal’s most useful insistence as a moralist, which is that we ought to cease speaking of homosexuals and heterosexuals. There are only women and men, some of whom prefer their own sex, some the other, and some both. This is the burden of Myra Breckinridge., but a burden borne with lightness, wildness, abandon, joy, skill. It was a little difficult to see just how the author of Julian was one with the creator of Myra, but that increased a sense of expectation for what was to come.
I have never encountered a copy of Two Sisters, which followed Myra, but I have read the half-dozen intervening novels before Lincoln, with some appreciation and much puzzlement, until now. Myron and the recent Duluth seem to me failures in the exuberant mode of Myra Breckinridge, though I was stimulated by the references in Duluth to the egregious Thornton Bloom, author of The Kabbalah. The fictions of political history, Burr and 1876 were far better, and indeed Burr stands with Julian and Myra Breckinridge as Vidal’s truest contributions before Lincoln. But Kalki was another Messiah, contrived and perfunctory, in the religious mode that Vidal should perhaps handle only historically, while Creation, a civilized and learned narrative, showed that Vidal, even working historically, is simply not a philosophical novelist. Creation, unlike Julian, reduces to a series of essays, which are always provocative, but almost never very consequential. Vidal, reimagining our cultural origins, or rather our imaginations of those origins, is no Burckhardt and no Nietzsche, but then why should he be?
What he is, in Lincoln, is a masterly American historical novelist, now wholly matured, who has found his truest subject, which is our national political history during precisely those years when our political and military histories were as one, one thing and one thing only: the unwavering will of Abraham Lincoln to keep the states united. Vidal’s imagination of American politics, then and now, is so powerful as to compel awe. Lincoln is to our national political mythology what Whitman is to our literary mythology: the figure that Emerson prophesied as the Central Man. No biographer has been able to give us a complete and convincing account of the evasive and enigmatic Whitman. No biographer, and until now no novelist, has had the precision of imagination to show us a plausible and human Lincoln, of us and yet beyond us. Vidal, with this book, does just that, and more: he gives us the tragedy of American political history, with its most authentic tragic hero at the center, which is to say, at our center.
Lincoln: A Novel begins in the early, frozen morning of February 23, 1861, as Lincoln, flanked by the detective Pinkerton and by his presidential bodyguard, Lamon, slips into Washington so as to avoid being murdered before his inauguration. A minority president, elected with less than 40 percent of the total vote, he confronts a crisis that no predecessor, and no American head of state since, could even envision. Though his election committed him only to barring the extension of slavery to the new states, and though he was a moderate Republican and not an Abolitionist, Lincoln was violently feared by most of the South. Vidal’s opening irony, never stated but effectively implied, is that the South beheld the true Lincoln long before Lincoln’s own cabinet had begun to regard the will and power of the political genius who so evasively manipulated them. Vidal’s Lincoln is the most ambitious of all American presidents. The South feared an American Cromwell, and in Vidal’s vision the South actually helped produce an American Bismarck.
But there is no Southern perspective in Vidal’s novel, nor should there be. Lincoln, the first Westerner to be elected president since Andrew Jackson, is presented as the heir of Jackson and Polk, a believer in the strong executive tradition and a respecter of neither the states, nor the Congress, nor the courts, nor the parties, nor even the Constitution itself. This Lincoln, rather enigmatically, is transcendental and idealist only in the mode of the later Emerson, author of the grim essay “Power” in his superb The Conduct of Life. “Power” works by the dialectic of Emerson’s Lear-like revision of Coleridge’s compensatory imagination. Coleridge thought (or hoped) that experiential loss could be transformed into imaginative gain. Emerson rephrased this formula as “Nothing is got for nothing,” which seems the secret motto of Vidal’s Lincoln, who follows another great essay, “Fate,” in The Conduct of Life, by worshiping, not Jehovah nor Jesus, but only what Emerson called the Beautiful Necessity, the American tragedy of the struggle between freedom and fate, in which the heroic agonist secretly loves neither freedom nor fate, but only power. Vidal’s strong Lincoln, triumphant at last over both the South and his own cabinet and party, is such an agonist, a dialectician of power, and finally a kind of self-willed Orphic sacrifice who, in the closing words of Vidal’s book, “had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.”
It is Vidal’s skill as a narrator, and his art as a reimaginer of historical personages, that makes plausible this curiously nihilistic rebirth. The book’s narrative principle is a highly traditional one: deferred revelation, enacted throughout by Lincoln’s brilliant alternation of an endless, almost passive waiting with sudden, overwhelming acts of decision. What is perpetually deferred is a full awareness of Lincoln’s preternatural ability to prophesy the moves of every other politician, as well as his uncanny sense of his own greatness, his own central place in national and world history. That this savage greatness paradoxically has been revised by American mythology into Whitman’s “sweetest, wisest soul” and later debased into Carl Sandburg’s homespun sentimentalist may be the provocation for Vidal’s novel, yet one senses that Vidal’s motives are more immediate. With the likely, impending reelection of Reagan, the nation confronts what might become the final crisis of Lincoln’s presidential creation. If our system is, as Vidal contends, Lincoln’s invention, then the American age of Lincoln finally approaches its apocalypse. Should Vidal prove correct, his tragic vision of Lincoln as Orphic dictator may serve also as an elegy for the one hundred and twenty years of Lincoln’s invented America.
On its surface, Vidal’s novel is a grand entertainment, maintaining a tonal intensity that might be called humorously somber. Lincoln himself is presented as the master of evasions, strongest when he strives to appear weakest, and a purposive self-mythologizer. Vidal cunningly contributes to the mythologizing by adding “the Tycoon” and “the Ancient” to “Old Abe” and “Father Abraham” as presidential nicknames. The crucial name probably is “the Ancient,” who indeed is what Emerson called “Spontaneity or Instinct” in the crucial essay, “Self-Reliance.” Lincoln falls back continually upon what is best and oldest in his own self, an ancient spark that seems to have originated not only before the creation of the Union, but before the Creation itself. More than Whitman, this Lincoln is Emerson’s American Adam, post-Christian and self-begotten, who knows no time when he was not as now. If this is Vidal’s ontological Lincoln, the empirical Lincoln, archetypal politician yet tragic sufferer, nevertheless more winningly dominates the novel.
Vidal demystifies Lincoln to the rather frightening degree of suggesting that he had transferred unknowingly a venereal infection, contracted in youth and supposedly cured, to his wife, Mary Todd, and through her to his sons. The gradually developing madness of Mrs. Lincoln, and the related early deaths of two of the boys, form one of the dark undersongs of this novel, plausibly suggesting a more than temperamental basis for Lincoln’s profound melancholia. Counterpointed against this sadness is Lincoln’s celebrated humor, conveyed by Vidal with authentic verve, but always with a Freudian sense of wit, in which the laughter carries the burden of double or antithetical meanings:
“Sometimes I say those things and don’t even know I’ve said them. When there is so much you cannot say, it’s always a good idea to have a story ready. I do it now from habit.” Lincoln sighed. “In my predicament, it is a good thing to know all sorts of stories because the truth of the whole matter is now almost unsayable; and so cruel.”
The “predicament” here overtly refers to the Southern Rebellion and the “truth of the whole matter” perhaps to the endless catastrophe of the sequence of incompetent Northern generals, but the underlying references are to Lincoln’s inner despairs. Vidal seems to be suggesting, quite subtly, throughout the novel, that Lincoln’s obsessive drive to preserve and restore the Union of the states was a grand restitution or compensation for what never could be healed in his own personal and familial life. Combined with a metaphysical will to power, this results in the gradual emergence of Lincoln as the first and most forceful dictator-president, forerunner of the Roosevelts and of Lyndon Johnson.
It seems to me an astonishing achievement that Vidal makes us love his Lincoln, “cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant,” qualities that do not often engender affection whether in fact or fiction—particularly because we have to struggle also against our mystified sense of the Sandburgian or Hollywood saintly Lincoln. I suspect that Vidal succeeds because his Lincoln is an authentic image of authority. Freud taught us that love reduces to love of authority, love of the father image that seems not to love us in return. Vidal’s Lincoln is Shakespearean, not just in his recurrent quotations from the plays, but in his lonely and heroic fatalism. He inspires love partly because he seems to be beyond needing it.
Surrounding Vidal’s Lincoln swarms an almost Dickensian roster of fabulistic caricatures: politicians, generals, White House aides, Washington ladies, newspapermen, Northern and Southern conspirators, and amiably evil bankers, including Jay Cooke himself. These are Vidal’s America, then and now, and they are rendered with an almost invariable and unfailing gusto. The most memorable and entertaining is the sanctimonious Salmon P. Chase: archetypal Republican, pious Abolitionist, hero of bankers, endless plotter to seize power from Lincoln, and forever ungrateful to the president for his appointments as secretary of the treasury and chief justice. Vidal’s Chase is the comic foil to Vidal’s tragic Lincoln, for Chase has every quality except aesthetic dignity. Inwardly humble, but in the Dickensian mode, Chase pursues greatness, to the parodistic extent of obsessively yielding to a ruling passion for collecting the autographs of famous writers.
In a finely rendered scene of comic pathos, Chase confronts the job-seeking and highly disreputable Walt Whitman, who is devoting himself to the care of sick and wounded soldiers. Since Whitman bears with him a letter of recommendation from Emerson, Chase’s sole concern is to extract the desired letter while rejecting the obscene bard. Whitman splendidly starts off wrong by comparing the inside of the Capitol to “the interiors of Taylor’s saloon in the Broadway, which you doubtless know.” Chase shudders at thus encountering a populist beast, and proceeds to his triumph:
“In Mr. Emerson’s letter, does he mention what you might do in the government’s service?” Chase thought this approach subtle in the extreme.
“Well, here it is,” said Whitman. He gave Chase the letter. On the envelope was written “The Honorable S.P. Chase.” Inside was a letter dated January 10, endorsing Walt Whitman highly for any sort of government post; and signed, Chase excitedly saw, with the longed-for-but-never-owned autograph “R.W. Emerson.”
“I shall give Mr. Emerson, and yourself, sir, every sort of consideration,” said Chase, putting the letter in his pocket where it seemed to him to irradiate his whole being as if it were some holy relic.
“I shall be truly grateful. As will Mr. Emerson, of course.” Chase shook Whitman’s hand at the door and let him out. Then Chase placed the letter square in the middle of his desk, and pondered what sort of frame would set it off best.
As the novel progresses, Vidal’s exuberance in depicting Chase increases, and the reader begins to share the author’s dialectical sympathy for this comic monster who nevertheless is the clear ancestor of all sanctimonious Republicans since, down to the menagerie currently staffing the White House. Though a paragon of selfishness, Chase nevertheless is sincere in behalf of the slaves, while Lincoln frees them only reluctantly, and then idly dreams of shipping them off to the West Indies or back to Africa. Chase seeks power, but for presumably idealistic purposes; Lincoln, with the single purpose of keeping his nation unified, stalks power with no concern whatsoever for human rights.
Vidal does not celebrate Lincoln’s destruction of civil liberties, but shows a certain admiration for the skill with which the President subverts the constitution he is sworn to defend. There is a split in Vidal between the man of letters who has a friendly contempt for politicians and the born political man who would make a remarkable senator, if only even California was quite ready for him. The audacity that distinguishes Vidal as visionary politician, amiably and sensibly urging us to withdraw tax-exempt status from churches, synagogues, foundations, and universities, is matched by his audacity as political novelist, urging us to see Lincoln plain while giving us a Lincoln that our mythological needs cannot quite accept.
I return to the still ambiguous question of Vidal’s strength or perhaps competing strengths as a novelist. Lincoln, together with the curiously assorted trio of Julian, Myra Breckinridge, and Burr, demonstrates that his narrative achievement is vastly underestimated by American academic criticism, an injustice he has repaid amply in his essayistic attacks upon the academy, and in the sordid intensities of Duluth. But even Lincoln (unlike the slighter but flawless Myra Breckinridge) has its disappointments. Booth’s conspiracy against Lincoln’s life was melodramatic enough in mere actuality, but that does not justify Vidal’s rendering of it as a quite perfunctory melodrama. The difficulty appears again to be Vidal’s relative weakness, except in farce, for inventing characters, as opposed to his immense gifts for revisualizing historical personae. David Herold, upon whom the Booth conspiracy is made to center, remains a name upon these pages; he simply does not stimulate Vidal’s imagination, unlike Lincoln, Chase, and other personages of our common past. Lincoln’s striking Epicurean fatalism is asserted rather than dramatized; the ideological and religious vigor that portrayed Julian the Apostate so memorably is simply absent here. And though Vidal’s humor is a pleasure throughout, he restrains himself too strictly from relying upon his genius for farce. This may be just as well, since the author of Myra Breckinridge is also the author of Duluth. But it does prompt the critical question: will it ever be possible for Vidal to reconcile all of his talents within the dimensions of a single novel?
The question would be unjust or misleading if Lincoln did not testify so persuasively that Vidal, in his late fifties, remains a developing rather than an unfolding novelist, to borrow a useful distinction from Northrop Frye. There are several extant American novelists, more highly regarded by critics than Vidal, who nevertheless will never surprise us. Vidal, like the very different Norman Mailer, has the capacity to confound our expectations. Such a capacity, in so bad a time for the republic, both of letters and of politics, scarcely can be overpraised.
July 19, 1984