Posted: July 14, 2014
A review of Lincoln: A novel, by Gore Vidal
First Citizen: You have deserved nobly of your country and you have not deserved nobly.
o trivial are the projects today's novelists set themselves that producing a noble failure in any large-scale political conception would raise the stakes of current American literature. To say Gore Vidal's recent novel fails nobly may go too far. But, if admirable is not the word, there is surely something wondrous in the audacity of the creator of Myra Breckenridge taking on the job of depicting the two presidencies of Lincoln. Whatever its cause, Vidal's new daring is welcome, and his abilities in most of the technical prerequisites of fiction writing are not negligible. One is tempted to judge the effort by the standard Dr. Johnson stipulated for dogs who walk on their hind legs and women who preach, not to require the thing be done well but applaud that it is done at all. In the last resort, however, both the strength and the weakness of Vidal's performance resides at the heart of his conception of the man, who, with Churchill, deserves the title of foremost statesman of the modern era. The treatment that shapes the novel is ample, strenuous, vivid, and at times moving. And hence the more disappointing for being at bottom inadequate.
Vidal's canvas is large. In over 600 pages the book takes in Lincoln's career as President beginning with his arrival in disguise on the eve of the First Inaugural and concluding with an epilogue set about a year after his assassination. The ambitious scope of the novel allows for two remarkable developments. It enables us to witness the slow growth of Lincoln's awareness of the enormous burdens of the effort he had undertaken to preserve the Union as he wears out a succession of unsatisfactory commanding generals. Lincoln learns the lessons of war-making and exhibits an endurance that can best be rendered by providing the reader with a sense of the strength required to pull oneself up by the bootstraps after numerous falls. The expansive dimensions also allow for portraying the gradual awakening of Lincoln's cabinet members, notably Chase and Seward, to the tremendous reserves of energy, determination, and dissimulated intelligence concealed beneath Lincoln's cracker-barrel speech and appearance. It requires time to show an accumulation of parliamentary ambushes, outflankings of Congress, and backstairs maneuvering sufficient to bring shrewd men such as Seward, Chase, Thaddeus Stevens, and Stanton to the recognition of Lincoln's consummate sophistication as a politician and wielder of a party. Vidal obviously worked himself hard to learn the historical detail needed to make the long story convincing. At a time when successful American writers have not felt it worthwhile to put themselves to any pains re-imagining the nation's history, one can be grateful that Vidal acknowledged the necessity of working up to the level of his subject. The result is something more like food for grown men than the thin whimsies from which much of contemporary fiction and drama are whipped up and eked out.
One can also be grateful for writing that contains spasms of moral vigor. You count on some degree of moral discernment from a writer who has Lincoln explain to his son "a libertine is a man who loves liberty only a little, not a lot like us" (p. 218). You credit a writer with some political prudence who can have the President explain to his Attorney General his suspensions of habeas corpus by observing, "I think we should, first, persuade Mr. Taney that though it might've lookedlike I was swearing an oath to him because he happened to be holding the Bible that morning, I was really swearing an oath to the whole country to defend the whole Constitution" (p. 183). Vidal, moreover, persuades one of his alertness to the interplay of a great man's spiritedness with his sense of purpose. Lincoln's fondness for outlandish downhome anecdotes comes across as shrewd rhetorical jamming employed to disarm his listeners. We perceive the humor also as a necessity of Lincoln's soul, his means of restoring himself to equanimity in moments of discouragement. Vidal can discriminate between interesting men of no character (Secretary of War Cameron), men possessed of character but of no great self-understanding (Salmon Chase), and figures whose essential goodness combine with damaging yet understandable weaknesses (Mary Todd Lincoln). At a time when we find American literature afflicted with characters who scarcely ever convincingly represent the mixed human moral condition, discrimination even within a narrow range of the middling, the worse, and the still worse has to be welcomed. And two or three of Vidal's subordinate characters are better than middling. That achievement allows a creditable moral field within which to view the principal character. Lincoln's wife Mary Todd resembles Dostoyevsky's Katerina Ivanovna, a woman weakened by vanity but capable of pride. Vidal builds a moving scene out of Mrs. Lincoln's painful conversation with her sister whose husband has chosen to fight for the South. At the close of this scene it is possible to say of Mary with no sense of melodrama, "and so her youth came to an end, once and for all" (p. 167). For the sake of successes in characterization such as the large-spirited Mrs. Lincoln, a cold-blooded Kate Chase (daughter of Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury) and the urbane Seward, one is willing not to complain too much against Vidal's two most obtrusive impositions, Lincoln's personal secretary, John Hay, and the young rebel spy, David Herold. For both of these characters Vidal has created a low life that allows him to depict the interiors of bordellos. Similarly in Burr a young connoisseur of prostitutes had carried a subplot running parallel with the political doings of the principal character. Evidently Vidal invokes scenes of bawdry as older authors once routinely displayed paragraphs of pious reflections, to establish credit with a certain chosen audience, in this case cognoscenti who deem themselves street-wise. Beyond their usefulness as certificates of worldly wisdom, the two characters seem to hold little interest for Vidal despite his having given over a sizeable portion of the narrative to their doings.
A second form of perfunctory sensationalism proves more damaging to the unity of the novel. A busy narrator provides us with clinical dossiers on Lincoln's family sorrows. Robert Lincoln confides to Hay that he has always felt himself neglected in his father's eyes. He resents the political ambition that has caused his father to be preoccupied and distant. This kind of psychological point-making, however trite, is relatively innocent. Less innocuous because more pretentious is Vidal's planting William Herndon about half-way through the novel chiefly for the sake of recording an insinuation that the illness which deranges Mary and causes the death of one son and disfigurement of another results from Lincoln's having once contracted syphillis.1 This entire business is a distraction, a sorry little bribe thrown out to the dark gods.
Two of Vidal's earlier historical novels, Julian (the Apostate) and Burr, undertake to rehabilitate figures whom history has not treated kindly. Burr, 1876, and now Lincoln launch a reinterpretation of America's past. The lines of this reinterpretation are uncertain, but it appears that Vidal has taken his guidance from the revisionists in his interpretation of Lincoln's career. If Julian and Burr revise the received historical estimate upward, Lincoln follows the more familiar path of downscaling. Obviously Vidal wants at all costs to avoid the sentimentalization of an "Honest Abe" hagiography descending from Whitman to Sandburg to the popular media. Hence he loses no opportunity to present the hard, relentlessly intriguing, party boss. Since this is part of a neglected truth about Lincoln, the novel, by emphasizing the Republican leader's obliquity and savvy, restores part of the whole truth. Vidal's anxiety to distance himself from sentimentalists leads him, however, to exploit a version of modern demonology. The most telling deficiency of the book is just here at its center.
In his determination to be subtle, Vidal misses the noble simplicity of principle that nerved Lincoln's will. As an exercise in historical imagination the novel fails on three counts. First, it misrepresents the constitutional issues raised by Lincoln's vigorous application of presidential war-making powers. Second, Vidal succumbs to melodrama and reliance on improbabilities when, ignoring or rejecting Lincoln's own account of his purposes, he attempts to explain Lincoln's ambition as dark titanism, Caesarian megalomania. Third, because he looks too low in search of the real, Vidal neglects the obvious: the moral conception of human equality that for Lincoln gave meaning to the cause of the Union.
Much of the novel's development depends upon a Copperhead view of Lincoln's exploitation of the presidential war powers. A succession of witnesses combine admiration for the strong man's daring with disapproval of what we are asked to believe amounts to rough-shod treatment of the Constitution. When Lincoln holds Maryland for the Union by jailing Baltimore secessionists without indictments, Vidal has his Seward comment that "two millenia of law had been casually erased," and Vidal as narrator asserts that an order executed by Winfield Scott to arrest dissidents on vague charges attested a willingness "to overthrow the first rule of law, habeas corpus." A few pages later appears a little speech by Chase extolling habeas corpus as the foundation of due process and immediately thereafter follows accounts of Taney's indignation over Lincoln's handling of seditionists. On several subsequent occasions various characters make reference to Lincoln's high-handedness as though disregard of the Constitution had become daily business for the Commander-in-Chief. When Lincoln tells a complaining New York Senator that he has no intention of postponing action until the Supreme Court should have had opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of his Conscription Act, Vidal has Seward suddenly perceive Lincoln as "a single-minded dictator . . . a Lord Protector of the Union" whom he compares to "a Cromwell . . . a despot" (p. 459). As justification of his boldness, Lincoln has invoked nothing more than "the most ancient of all our human characteristics . . . survival" (p. 153).
We are supposed to share Seward's "involuntary shudder" as we witness an elemental titanism not to be bound by any law. Yet there is nothing unconstitutional in refusing to stay executive action until the Supreme Court has passed on a statute. Moreoever, in regard to suspension of habeas corpus, Article I, Section 9 expressly provides that "in cases of rebellion" the public safety may require suspending the writ. No character in the novel appears to be aware of the existence of the pertinent clause of Article I, Section 9. Vidal in fact manages to show no action on the part of Lincoln that deserves to be called unconstitutional. Yet his conception of Lincoln as expressing a political potency beyond law obliges him to convey the impression that Lincoln must have over-reached the constitutional limits of the executive authority. Vidal's imagination thus fails to grasp the true genius of a statesman who augmented his power by respecting the Constitution, and not by abrogating it.
Yet Vidal's mirage of an unconstitutional Cromwellian Lincoln consists perfectly with his misperception of the course taken by Lincoln's ambition from early on in his career. From Hay we have the conjecture that "From the beginning, he knew that he was the first man in the country, and that he was bound to get his way, if he lived" (emphasis Vidal's, p. 654). Billy Herndon drops into the novel for no other reason than to establish the point that back in Illinois Lincoln always got his way (unless the syphilis be counted as a setback). But the most emphatic testimony to the will of Lincoln comes from his old opponent, Stephen Douglas. When Lincoln has a private conversation with the Little Giant soon after the First Inaugural, Douglas reveals that he has been thinking about the January 27, 1838, Springfield Lyceum Speech in which Lincoln had warned against demagogues arising from "the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle." Douglas now charges "you are the eagle, you are the lion" (p. 112). Vidal would have us think that Douglas knows his man. With Douglas we are supposed to see through Lincoln. He resents the Founders having preempted the glory of making an enduring republic. He will not help raise Washington's monument (now just half erected and visible from the windows of the White House). Instead, he will pay any cost in blood to refound the nation on principles distinctly his own-only new creations bring the overawing glory Lincoln requires. It appears that Vidal's Douglas has also been reading twentieth-century revisionist historians, current psychoanalytic therapists, and a recent school of literary theory which holds that poetic creation proceeds by strong writers' rebelling resentfully against the prestige of strong predecessors. Vidal's disclosure of the subliminal Lincoln might have been concocted by Harold Bloom in delirium.
Post-Freudian novelists and dramatists tend to equate profound revelation of character with moments of unwitting self-disclosure. The classical instance of the technique of exposure is Eugene O'Neill's Lavinia Mannon at the climax ofMourning Becomes Electra letting slip the name of a man she had helped to kill when she intends to proclaim her love for the suitor who stands at her side. The edges of suppressed reprehensible instincts peeking out from the incompletely fastened corners of a concealing blanket of consciousness are considered more definitive than expressions of character in rational deeds. Accordingly, modern writers build their stories around moments when the darker angels of our nature speak through our stammers, slips, blushes, and lame silences.
Lincoln endures several such moments here with Douglas, Vidal records all the signs of his giving away the show as under Douglas's accusations he allows himself to be observed "frozen in an attitude of attention," then, "shook his head as if he had been dreaming," and at the last as Douglas continues to probe falls silent (pp. 111-12). So that we cannot fail to take the point, there is a reprise on the Lyceum speech toward the end when Seward permits himself the irreverence of doubting Lincoln meant anything at Gettysburg by extolling government of the people, "since no government can be anything else but of them unless the lions and the tigers take over." To this Vidal has Lincoln murmur to himself, "or the race of eagles" (p. 570). By the time the war has run its course Lincoln is prepared to acknowledge, to himself at least, that he has practiced Caesarism in order to stand out from the shadow of Washington.
But Vidal does not stop at making his Lincoln a Caesar cum Cromwell cum Macbeth. He must also have him expiate his crimes of ambition. As the war grinds on, therefore, we witness a growing morbidity, fatalism, and regret in the Commander-in-Chief who at one point comments on Grant's victories in the West, "'we should be able to close most swiftly the circle of death . . . of victory I mean . . . Lincoln's voice trailed off" (p. 309), and who comes to confess he prefers over Hamlet's soliloquies Claudius's "O! my offense is rank" (p. 527). For the premise of the novel to hold, Lincoln must be given not only a death-scene but a death-wish. Lincoln ceases to eat, grows thinner as the Union forces grow stronger, and yearns as much for release from life as for victory. This is no ordinary war weariness but rather we are asked to believe that Lincoln's melancholy reveals his consciousness of having wronged the dead, "the dead would not vote for me, ever, in this-or any other-world" (p. 589). Vidal's insistence upon staging a guilt-ridden victor leads him to his last and most extravagant improbability. In the closing words of the novel his mouthpiece, Hay, is said to have reached the conclusion that "Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, 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" (p. 657). That "some mysterious fashion" is well-fished for.
Lincoln might have had sufficient reason to will his own assassination if he had indeed pursued the purpose Vidal imagines for him. But the far-fetched character of Hay's supposition throws doubt back on the premise on which it has been mounted. We wonder if Vidal has not missed the most essential thing about Lincoln.
The heart of Lincoln's mystery for Vidal is, in the first instance, the idea of Union. We might think that Union was important to Lincoln because he believed that the people of America ought to be united in the affirmation of some truth, ought to be dedicated to some proposition. Not so. For the Lincoln of the novel, the Union stands on nothing and looks toward nothing. The Union is to be revered for itself, not by reference to anything beyond itself. If one insists on some declaration of the essence of this entity, the unity of which must at every cost be preserved, the only definition offered is the idea of the modern nation-state. The popular mind compares Lincoln with Jefferson or with Washington, but the more discerning student of comparative politics prefers to find Lincoln's counterpart in Bismarck. Hay's last words, "Bismarck would also give the vote to people who never had it before," carry the assent of the sophisticated observers of the world assembled at the Empress Eugenie's diplomatic reception, "we have here a subject-Lincoln and Bismarck, and new countries for old" (p. 656). The notion that Lincoln was guided all along by his determination to refashion America into a homogeneous nation-state supposedly casts light back upon the hitherto shaded stages of his career. He had worked as attorney for the Illinois Central because he had always understood the connection between the technology of centralization and the political purposes such technology subserves. Because he places priority upon union conceived as centralization of a national will, this Lincoln resents any suggestion that the issue of slavery is paramount. Vidal has him complain against Fremont's liberation of slaves in the border states, "This is a war for a great national idea, the Union, and now Fremont has tried to drag the Negro into it!" (p. 240) And of course Lincoln's reputed "racism," evident in his designs to establish Negro colonies abroad, becomes intelligible in view of his Bismarckian nationalism. He seeks racial homogeneity if he can get it, and when he sees he cannot, he gives the vote to Negroes because that too would move the nation toward homogeneity by diluting the Southern sectionalism bloc.
And what stands behind the determination to remake America so as to make the nation homogeneous in character and centralized in its organization? Nothing. Yet, one must add, a definite form of nothing. It is the sort of nothing that can be characteristically rendered in Shakespeare's Caesar accounting for his refusal to attend the Senate by saying, "The cause is in my will." The more perfect union bought with so much blood is at once the product of Lincoln's will and the proof, the attestation, the bodily form, of that will. This is so because the only indisputable proof of the individuality of any particular will is the evidence of its having created, something. "Of the people, by the people, for the people," the phrase that puzzles the usually knowing Seward, makes the best of sense to this nihilist Lincoln. America can be henceforth what it never has been before: the pure creation of the popular will as that popular will at any moment chooses to be. Hitherto the rule of law embedded in common law and in a persistent tradition of natural right teaching had confined the scope and tempered the operation of creative will. Now with its new birth of freedom accomplished in blood and terror, America can create itself. Still, America can create itself only because first Lincoln has created the new America.
Not only in the circumstance of its conception but in its continuing execution, the new America Lincoln has forged exalts the will of its creator. The modern nation-state is preferable to the older association of several states within a federation because it better answers to guidance by one will, that of a dictatorial executive. It has just the sort of unity one might find in a work of art-a union between the material elements composing the creation and the creative intent of the artist. Thus the meaning of the Union for this autarchic Lincoln and hence, also, his ambivalence between elation and discouragement as the war closes. Victory in the war means the completion of his creation, or nearly so, but the completion of his creation means that he has nothing more to live for. The creation exhausts the content of the creator since he has nothing more to show forth. Life after such a definitive demonstration of will must necessarily be anticlimactic. And thus in the weariness that follows an unrepeatable success, guilt overtakes Lincoln. The guilt is nothing other than Lincoln's way of explaining to himself the emptiness that must ensue upon a crowning act of nihilist self-definition.
Vidal can create a nihilistic Lincoln only by suppressing everything that kept the historical Lincoln from becoming a nihilist. What these principles were, anyone can know from reading any of the several excellent accounts of Lincoln's thought and leadership by Harry Jaffa. Or merely paying attention to the words he has left should cause one to doubt Vidal's interpretation. That Lincoln conceived the Union to stand upon a foundation of moral right which alone could suffice to make the Union worth venerating should be evident to anyone who takes seriously Lincoln's own writings and speeches. To offer the Springfield Lyceum speech as a revelation of a secret program of Caesarian ambition, Vidal must not permit his reader to hear very much of it, for when it is taken whole the speech develops one of the two or three most powerful defenses of constitutionalism and rule of law produced by the Western mind. Similarly, if Vidal had conveyed the substance of the Cooper Institute Address of 1860, instead of merely its occasion and its usefulness in propelling Lincoln into the Republican nomination, or if he had conveyed anything at all of the address to the Washington Temperance Society, February 22, 1842, his imagination of an antinomian innovator disdainful of constitutional impediments would have lost every claim to plausibility. Lincoln's first stay against moral confusion was his fidelity to the Constitution. Not surprisingly, Lincoln's deeds as president fail to support the charges of unconstitutional policy spoken by Vidal's assorted chorus, not surprisingly because those deeds were the work of a mind that sought to inculcate law abidingness, especially adherence to America's supreme law. Lincoln's principled fidelity to the Constitution is unmistakable in the great speeches delivered before 1860 and in his utterances during the war. One can dismiss these tributes to the founding law only if, ignoring the plain purport of plain words, one presumes to know the speaker better than he knew himself.
It is true that not even the Constitution was for Lincoln the ultimate reference for proper political conduct. But it is only true in a qualified sense that the Union was his ultimate reference and altogether untrue that beyond the idea of Union he acknowledged no ground other than his will. No statesman of modern times possessed a stronger will than Lincoln, and a measure of his strength he owed to ambition. He did indeed have the ambition of "thirty Caesars." But the strength of his will derived from the single-mindedness of his dedication to a moral principle. That principle was the self-evident truth proposed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Not union upon any terms and certainly not union upon the terms of a Bismarckian nation-state, but union as the common dedication of Americans to upholding the obligations bound up with the central idea of human equality is the end for the sake of which Lincoln fought, taught, sacrificed himself and his family, and employed his outsized resources of ambition, tenacity, rhetoric, and guile.
Lincoln stated his understanding of equality as a moral principle clearly and consistently throughout his career. In the midst of the war he sought at Gettysburg to rededicate the nation to its Founding idea. Vidal narrates the address at Gettysburg but then arranges an obfuscation of its clear theme. The same kind of blurring of moral focus troubles his portrayal of Lincoln's politics before the presidency. We are given only just enough of Douglas remembering now in 1861 the debates of the Illinois Senate race to permit an account of Lincoln's entrapment of his opponent at Freeport in the summer of 1858. Otherwise, nothing of the debates, of the issues of free soil, slavery, popular sovereignty or of the principles of the American regime, none of these themes of the debates comes through. Consequently, a reader who doesn't know better cannot, from Vidal's account, conceive the combination of principled thought and prudent application of principle to circumstance which stands out as the real drama of the debates as well as the most convincing proof of Lincoln's moral, rhetorical, and political intelligence. Stated bluntly, the reader has been subjected to a bait-and-switch.
Those persuaded by modern artists' arguments on behalf of creative autonomy will object that the novelist is entitled to select or suppress historical detail in accord with "artistic necessity." The standard reply to criticism directed to matters of fact is "But surely you must know that I was writing a novel." The truth that imaginative works are not constructed altogether from incidents historically verifiable is invoked to cover the falsehood that a novel can be true as the account of an historical figure without establishing its substantial fidelity to important known facts-in this case, the recorded speeches of Lincoln. When Vidal seeks to avail himself of the advantages of basing his fiction upon a famous historical figure he incurs as the cost of those advantages the responsibility of preserving the essential truth about his subject. One might suppose that the business of the imaginative writer is to enable his readers to see that essential truth more searchingly than they would apprehend it without the artist's guidance. One takes up a novel bearing a title such as Myra Breckinridge for who knows what reason, but one comes to a novel with the title Lincoln because one hopes by the book to know better something one already knows, although imperfectly. So it is not unreasonable to require of Vidal that he not leave his subject murkier than he found it.
A student of poetry who also studies America must wonder if this country has ever produced poets up to the task of capturing the spirit of the regime. It seems tolerably clear, in any event, that twentieth-century American writers have failed to make memorable literature depicting the nation's distinct contribution to the unfolding of the Western spirit. Not a single serious novel or play by an American author has portrayed an episode in the drama of self-government. The stakes of this drama are well known from the classical statement of Hamilton, "It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice" (Federalist No. 1). The public life of this country offers a crucible for trying conclusions regarding a hope of Western civilization tied to the development of representative assemblies, a development begun perhaps 600 years ago. The hope is of rule of law or of its equivalent formulation, republican liberty-good government of equal laws arrived at by public reflection and choice. Such a suspenseful, doubtful endeavor would seem to offer attractive material for the dramatic tastes of writers. If we then ask why it is that American writers of this century have not been alive to this drama-in-progress at their feet, the answer seems to lie in the content of the higher education which forms writers today and sets the expectations they share with their audiences. The predominant features of that education are positivism, Marxism and its historicist derivatives, and a psychologism that discounts human deeds of rational choice in deference to explanations of conduct that suppose a nonrational determination in subconscious motives of sexuality or will to power. Such an education produces few minds disposed to take an interest in the question whether good government can be produced by reflection and choice. Twentieth-century higher education has decided the question negatively and, so to speak, on principle: Human beings produce nothing by reflection and choice. Rather their experience of deliberating and choosing is an illusion superimposed upon the real springs of action, imperatives of class-consciousness, of libido, or of self-love incapable of knowing itself. A late version of this opaque perspective upon things human and political impairs Vidal's portrayal of the great crisis of the American regime. For those who persist in taking seriously the experiment in political deliberation that Hamilton called "the most interesting in the world" and Lincoln "the last best hope," there is nonetheless something encouraging in the bare fact that an established contemporary novelist undertakes to treat political material of some complexity and consequence. The first condition for a more adequate American literary art is that audiences should be prepared to attend to important political subjects. Changes in American universities may yet produce writers adequate to the effort of reimagining their country's past. Meanwhile one can learn from the few historians who have discerned the poetry of America's history.2
1Herndon waited until January 1891 to tell his collaborator, Jesse Weik, that Lincoln contracted syphilis "when a mere boy." Cited in David Donald, Lincoln's Herndon (New York: Alfred Knopf, reprinted 1948), p. 360.
2The following works serve to correct the view of Lincoln as nihilist: Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: AnInterpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Inc.), 1959; Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln (New York, John Wiley & Sons), 1959; Leo Paul S. De Alvarez, ed.,Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, and American Constitutionalism (Irving, Texas: University of Dallas Press), 1976; Glen E. Thurow, Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press), 1976; George Anastaplo, "American Constitutionalism and the Virtue of Prudence: Philadelphia, Paris, Washington, Gettysburg," in De Alvirei, ed., Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, pp. 77-170.