Like Babe Ruth, Abraham Lincoln was a powerfully talented Yankee who inspired genuine affection even in opponents. Like Samuel Gompers, his dominant passion was Union, and he would do anything—even condone slavery—to prevent the United States of America from disintegrating. The author of more than thirty books, Gore Vidal has, as a congressional candidate from New York and a senatorial candidate from California, also been a politically active Democrat. His historical novel about the first Republican president, the sixteenth president of the United States, came just as the sixteenth Republican president was seeking reelection. Lincoln joins Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), and Washington, D.C. (1967) in Vidal’s American chronicle sequence. It is an enthralling narrative about The Great Emancipator—a gangling man who achieved greatness by cunning indirection and emancipation by inadvertence.
Lincoln begins at dawn on February 23, 1861, as the disguised presidentelect, elevated from the obscurity of his Illinois law practice by a mere plurality of the vote, slips into Washington to avoid assassination. There is a brief epilogue set in a Paris drawing room on January 1, 1867, but the body of the work concludes on April 15, 1865, with Lincoln’s death at the hands of a vainglorious young actor. The novel is set during an era of fratricidal strife and in a revolting Southern city of sewage canals and stinking swamps. The White House, infested with rats, termites, and flies and devoid of plumbing, is referred to by one of its inhabitants as “the miasmic mansion.” Office seekers besiege it more persistently than do Confederate troops. A cow grazes on its lawn, and an abattoir operates nearby. The Washington Monument remains unfinished.
Lincoln is no hagiography, no pious monument to “Honest Abe.” Vidal had, in The Second American Revolution (1982), earlier written that “the actual Lincoln was cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant.” This novel focuses on the wily tactician who took office without an overwhelming popular mandate and despite the Southern view that his inauguration represented a casus belli, yet who eventually managed to rout his political and military opposition. Lincoln’s reverence for the Constitution did not prevent him from taking considerable liberties with its legal guarantees; he suspended habeas corpus, jailed hostile newspaper editors and political adversaries, and had the Secret Service inspect private letters and telegrams. This is not exactly the sentimental saint of Carl Sandburg and civics texts. Vidal’s Lincoln is a genial manipulator of his own myth of frontier bumpkin, one adept at deflecting anger with a rustic anecdote.
Lincoln appoints his principal political rivals, William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase, to the Cabinet, where they neutralize each other and sabotage their own ardent ambitions for the presidency. Seward dreams of an imperial republic which will encompass the entire continent and is impatient with intersectional rivalries that stand in the way of that goal. Aside from the advancement of his own career, Chase is devoted to nothing so much as the total and unconditional abolition of slavery. Each is convinced that their Chief Executive is a mediocrity who will, in any case, never be reelected. By 1863, however, Seward has...
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