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Tom Chaney: R775 - a novelist and an historian look at Lincoln

Of Writers and Their Books: R775: A novelist and an historian look at Lincoln, a review first published 12 August 2007 in the Hart County Herald
The next earlier Tom Chaney column : Tom Chaney: No. R774: Revenge and Apple Fritters

By Tom Chaney

A novelist and an historian look at Lincoln

Two views of Abraham Lincoln have engaged my interest in the past couple of months. I have mentioned Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln [Simon & Schuster, 2005]. The second, a novel I have read at least once in the past, is Gore Vidal's Lincoln [Random House, 1984].

I have long been interested in the divide between history and fiction. As I was reading Goodwin, I began to remember Vidal and the pleasure with which I continue to read his work. Then I went back to Vidal and was struck by the enrichment each provided the other.

Of course the historian and the novelist serve different muses. The careful historian's task is to help us see the man and the world of that man from a new angle. The historian must work from the historical record using contemporary records such as journals, diaries, letters, biographies of associates, and such. Those are tempered by the works of historians between then and now to present the results of the new vision. Goodwin is splendid in that matter.

On the other hand, the novelist is not bound to total historical accuracy. While the novelist's job is to help us see the world as we have not seen it before, sources are not crucial to the finished product.

In Vidal's case we are provided with a brief afterword telling how he used and modified history to suit the shape of the novel. "How much of Lincoln is generally thought to be true? How much is made up? This is an urgent question for any reader; and deserves as straight an answer as the writer can give. . . . All of the principal characters really existed, and they said and did pretty much what I have them saying and doing, with the exception of the Surratts and David Herold. . . . David's life is largely unknown until Booth's conspiracy."

In the case of these two books on Lincoln, the sources are pretty much the same. Near the end of the Civil War Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and others meet aboard a ship to discuss many matters. Sherman, in his account notes that the talk came around to how to treat the men who led the south into rebellion. The question was raised as to what should be done with Jefferson Davis, then on the run from Richmond.

Sherman notes and both Goodwin and Vidal repeat Lincoln's response. "Grant stared hard at Lincoln. . . . 'Sherman's right. What shall we do about Jefferson Davis?'"

"Mr. Davis. . ." Lincoln's faced lightened. "That reminds me of the man who took the temperance pledge. Then he went to the house of a drinking friend who tried to tempt him, but he would not be tempted. He asked for lemonade. So the lemonade was brought to him. Then the friend pointed to a bottle of brandy and said, 'Wouldn't it taste better with some of that in it?' and the temperance man said, 'Well, if it is added unbeknown to me, I wouldn't object'" -- implying that Davis should not be pursued were he to leave the country.

In all too many cases the novelist is the better writer. In the case of Goodwin's and Vidal's Lincolns this issue does not apply. The historian and the novelist are both superb storytellers. Each can spin a mighty compelling tale.

A more visible difference is point of view.

Goodwin the historian does not, and probably should not, get within any one of the characters. Her professional distance causes her biography of Lincoln to rise above most of the books about Lincoln written since 1865.

On the other had, Vidal chooses a controlling point of view which makes his account seem immediate and fresh but not slavish. He lets us see Lincoln and his world through the eyes of the secretaries Nicolay and Hay -- giving us the ability to observe the subtlety of relationships and causes beyond the reach of the historian. David Herold, the druggist's assistant keeps the reader posted on the movements of Booth, Surratt, and the other conspirators.

We are fixing to hear a great deal about Lincoln between now and 2065 the bicentennial of his murder. For a leg up on the celebrants, one could do no better than to begin with either Vidal or Goodwin -- or both.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-08-12 05:59:24
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