(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Lincoln surprised some readers, who expected Vidal to turn his iconoclastic wit on the Great Emancipator, as he had Washington and Jefferson. Instead, Vidal draws an admiring portrait of the Civil War president. In this long, rich study of Lincoln during the Civil War, Vidal describes the interwoven lives of a variety of people surrounding Lincoln in the war-besieged capital: Young John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary (and later one of the greatest American secretaries of state); Lincoln’s rivals for power in the Republican party, including wily Secretary of State William Seward and staid Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase; arrogant generals such as George McClellan, who struts prettily in his uniform but never gets around to fighting battles; and plotters determined to kill Lincoln, including young David Herold and actor John Wilkes Booth, who finally does assassinate the president.

Vidal shows deep sympathy for the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, so often portrayed as a horrible shrew, another burden for the beleaguered president to carry. Vidal presents Mary Lincoln as an intelligent and decent woman going insane. Lincoln is the mystery. Vidal does not take the novelist’s liberty of getting inside Lincoln’s mind to show what he was thinking; he presents Lincoln only from an exterior viewpoint, as described and interpreted by those around him. Vidal emphatically rejects the popular view of Lincoln, the view largely shaped by poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. The folksy, man-of-the-people figure presented by Sandburg was only a mask created by Lincoln, Vidal believes, to hide his real self. The real Lincoln was a cold, brilliant, ruthlessly determined man, a man who did...

(The entire section is 706 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Lincoln: A Novel begins and ends with the Civil War president’s term of office. It is a study in the way political power is captured and maintained. Although the novel contains a subplot that focuses on the reasons for Southern disaffection with the Union, the main concern is always with the great politician himself and with how his subordinates connived to support or to undermine his authority. It is clear that Gore Vidal regards Abraham Lincoln as the greatest of American presidents, who not only preserved the Union but, in effect, re-created it. In order to comprehend fully the monumental task Lincoln confronted, Vidal follows the intricacies of cabinet and congressional politics. Many of the politicians who served and opposed the president seriously underestimated him and mistook his mild manner for weakness and passivity. As a result, Lincoln was generally perceived in his time as an ineffectual president overmatched by his demanding office.

One of the finest qualities of Vidal’s narrative is the way he gradually builds up evidence of Lincoln’s shrewdness and deviousness, both of which, the novelist demonstrates, are indispensable characteristics of a leader who has to rely on ambitious politicians, vain generals, and avaricious businessmen and journalists who seek his favor but who will profit from his failures if he is too open with them.

Much of Lincoln’s success, as this novel reveals, stems from keeping his own...

(The entire section is 462 words.)