Lincoln and American WritersSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
Copyright © Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. For permission to reuse journal material, please contact the University of Illinois Press (UIP-RIGHTS@uillinois.edu). Permission to reproduce and distribute journal material for academic courses and/or coursepacks may be obtained from the Copyright Clearance Center (www.copyright.com). :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
When I was invited by the association to talk on the announced subject, I responded on the telephone by saying that I thought I had over the years said about all I could without repeating myself, but that if it was to be just an informal talk I could oblige. Then several weeks later came Mr. Bridges' letter requesting a paper for publication as well. So I was stuck.
Fifty years ago, believe it or not, young folks, I surveyed all the Lincoln literature I could find, in my book The Lincoln Legend. With some pain I have reviewed what I then wrote, to ascertain whether I had any revisions to make in my description and analysis. The incredible amount of Lincoln literature up to 1935 still looks the same — a few great books, poems, plays and an enormous expanse of____________ — I don't know a satisfactory word for it. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, A History is still a great history, if not a satisfactory biography.  Herndon's Lincoln was and is a most valuable biography of Herndon's hero, and Ida Tarbell's Lincoln added materially to our knowledge.  Beveridge's uncompleted biography and Sandburg's Prairie Years and later War Years are still monumental achievements. Sandburg's friend, and friend to all of us, James G. Randall, in his multi-volume work, did the professional historian's best on Lincoln.  The chief regret that I have about my early opinions is that as a young graduate student I studied only printed materials, no source ma- Page [End Page 7] terials, and hence I feel today that the only apology I should make for The Lincoln Legend is for my uninformed poor opinion of William H. Herndon. Lincoln students owe more to Herndon than to any other man except Lincoln himself, for his devoted collection of recollections and statements of those who knew Lincoln, before they all disappeared from the scene, as well as for the biography which his friend Jesse Weik helped him write. Since 1935 I think one short popular biography remains, among several today, the best, our own Benjamin Thomas's Lincoln. 
There have been a number of fine histories of the Civil War and the Civil War Era which have not — of course could not have — failed to treat Lincoln, but I must pass over them in order to mention a few special Lincoln studies which seem to me to have made significant contributions to Lincoln literature in recent years: T. Harry Williams' Lincoln and His Generals, Richard Current's The Lincoln Nobody Knows and Charles Strozier's Lincoln's Quest for Union come to mind first among the dozen or more, which to enumerate would make this a bibliography rather than a commentary.
In the realm more specifically of belles lettres, Lincoln's appeal to poets, playwrights and writers of fiction has produced some of the finest poetry in American literature. After Whitman's masterpiece "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," there was at least one other, Edwin Arlington Robinson's "The Master," among many good poems written before 1935.  Since then, however, I have read only one which seems to me as poetry to equal the better ones: M. B. Tolson's poem on Lincoln's birth. Tolson is one of possibly two or three Negro poets in our day who have written truly inspired verse.
Playwrights have produced some memorable plays, two of them since 1935: Robert Sherwood and Mark Van Doren. In my opinion Van Doren's The Last Days of Lincoln is the finest of Lin- Page [End Page 8] coln dramas. It is a fact, however, that no American playwright has had the success with Lincoln that British dramatist John Drinkwater had. His Lincoln was not only a phenomenal Broadway success in 1919, but continued to run for five years in nearly every major theater in the United States.  I think, however, that the play itself was less distinguished than Frank McGlynn's performance, undoubtedly the best ever witnessed by theater audiences.
In spite of a plethora of fiction about Lincoln, fiction has not measured up to biography, poetry and drama. This brings me down to the present moment.
About ten years ago, I resolved to decline all requests for reviews of new books, because I felt that I had made enough enemies already. Writers like to dish out criticism of the work of others, but as a usual thing cannot take the bitter stuff on their own work. Before I agreed to appear on this program, I had resolved not even to read Gore Vidal's Lincoln, because I felt certain that my increasing disappointment in his development as a novelist would be almost certainly increased even further. By way of explanation, let me admit that from his first novel Williwaw, I followed Vidal's fiction with respect, and while I was officially responsible for inviting writers to lecture on the Whittall Series of the Library of Congress, I had invited him. He gave one of our better lectures. Not until he began writing historical fiction did I begin to have doubts about what he was up to. Of those, I found I could most easily read with some satisfaction those novels set in a period about which I knew but little, or at least less than he appeared to know, such as his novel about the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate. The more I knew about the scene and the characters, the phonier the fiction became, until it has now climaxed in the phoniest historical novel I have ever had the pleasure of reading — yes, the pleasure for Vidal seldom writes dully in his inspired cynicism toward human nature and his satiric portrayal of what he thinks life is all about, wherever the scene or whoever the characters.
Vidal's Lincoln presents the reader with a problem, whether the reader is aware of it or not. Should it be read and judged simply Page [End Page 9] as a lively fairy tale, grimmer than the brothers Grimm ever gathered in their famous compendium, seldom stodgy and frequently fascinating in portrayal of the episodes in the lives of the characters he has imagined? Or should it be read as historical fiction, true to the lives and characters of the people it purports to give us? In the second case it must be judged among the worst novels I have ever read. Why?
First, because more than half of the book could never have happened as told. As one example of many, consider the three pages he devotes to a fictional interview of Walt Whitman with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, looking for a job. The only thing historical in these three pages is the fact that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a letter to Chase recommending Whitman. In Vidal's scene Whitman is taken to see Chase by his friend William O'Connor, when the fact is that the letter was taken to Chase not by O'Connor or Whitman but by John T. Trowbridge, who was living with Chase while writing his somewhat laudatory biography. In my opinion anyone who knows about Whitman would recognize that presenting the letter in person, even accompanied by O'Connor, is wholly false to Whitman's character at this time of his life, and his conversation with Chase is entirely what Vidal might have said, but not Whitman.
Another 25 percent of the book is made up of episodes that might have happened, but never as they are told by Vidal. Consider the following scene in which Mary Lincoln is putting forward a friend for appointment to a consulship, while she and her husband watch, together with Mary's cousin Lizzie Grimsley and the Lincoln boys, from the White House roof through a telescope, across the Potomac, to see what is happening at the Battle of Bull run, which incidently could not have been reached by telescope.
"Let's all go down," said Lincoln. "And get ourselves ready for church. It's my favorite time of the week, as the convict said when they ..."
"We know the story, Father." Mary took his arm, aware that Lizzie was close to swooning as they walked in single file along the White House roof to the trapdoor where steep stairs led to the interior. "And speaking of your favorite time of the week, Lizzie and I were just discussing the Reverend Dr. James Smith ..."
"Oh, no!" Lincoln groaned. Page [End Page 10]
"Oh, yes!" Mary was the first to start down the steps. "He's our favorite minister in Springfield."
"Then we must keep him there."
"But, Father, he's Scotch."
"All the more reason. He will preach against extravagancies, and the vanities of this world, and land speculation." Mary's head was now below the roof. But her voice was clear. "He must go to Dundee in Scotland. As our consul."
"Yes, Brother Lincoln," said the pale Lizzie, clutching at the trapdoor, while her foot searched for the step. "He is a perfect choice."
"On a day like this, Cousin Lizzie, you corner me — your President — for a consulship?"
Lizzie was now inside. Willie followed. Then Lincoln, with Tad on his shoulders. "Well, first, you ladies must get me a certificate of good behavior from him. For all I know your Reverend Smith drinks, smokes and swears, and is a libertine."
The facts are that Reverend Smith had resigned his Springfield pulpit five years earlier in 1856, because his congregation was, as Mary tells it in one of her letters, too stingy to raise his salary. Furthermore, it was not Reverend Smith but his son Hugh who was interested in the consulship at Dundee, Scotland, and Lincoln appointed him. Both Lincoln and his wife knew the Smiths well at the time they were living in Springfield, had been, in fact, close friends. Can one imagine Lincoln saying, "for all I know your Reverend Smith drinks, smokes and swears, and is a libertine"? Not even in jest!
But it is Vidal's effort to portray Mary's insanity, intermittently through the novel, which I find most unbelievable even though she was indubitably at times on the verge of hysteria, if not actually insane. She undoubtedly cracked up more than once, but the scene she throws under Vidal's direction, over General Ord's wife riding next to Lincoln, is histrionically exaggerated out of all proportion to the recorded facts. 
What seems to me most reprehensible in Vidal's narrative is his loftily cynical, and sometimes snide, portrayal of historical persons, according perhaps to a satyrical novelist's view, but wholly out of focus with historical fact and character. For example, he portrays John Hay as an arrested adolescent, whom he calls "Johnny" through the book, a fraternity boy from Brown University (Theta Delta Chi) who "beams boyishly" at Mary Lincoln before he learns to detest her as "Hellcat" two pages later, and thereafter throughout the novel.  Of course, we know that Hay did infrequently refer to her thus, in his diary, but it seems to me Vidal gorges on his more unpleasant authenticities. Incidentally, Hay was nearly twenty-three years old when this novel begins, about the same age as Vidal was when he was writing his third novel and would hardly have liked to be described as "boyish."
The "ready for sex everybody" insouciance of Vidal's homosexual/transsexual novels, Myra Breckinridge and Myron, sometimes injects into John Hay's young experiences in the regular visits Vidal grants him to Sal Austin's whorehouse — the first time right after Lincoln's Inaugural Ball — to relieve his pent up sexuality.  Consider only the conclusion of this exquisitely detailed episode.
"Hello ..., Marie-Jeanne?" Hay was not certain of the etiquette. But she took charge; gave him Veuve Clicquot — known familiarly as the Widow to Sal's clients and employees.
"You're French?" Hay made conversation rather more awkwardly than he might have done with even the fiercest governor's fierce wife.
"Well, somewhere in the past, in Port-au-Prince, to be exact, there was very definitely a Frenchman. You're new to town?"
Hay nodded, pleased that Sal had kept his secret. If the girl knew who he was she would not have asked. "I'm going to be at the Treasury. As a clerk." Hay enjoyed lying to strangers, inventing a new personality, complete with such eccentric details as: "My mother came to live here while I was up north at school. She was an opera singer until she broke her hip in Paris. Page [End Page 13] Now she's in a wheelchair, in O Street in Georgetown. She gives singing lessons." During this inspired, Hay thought, aria, he had slipped his arm around Marie-Jeanne, and pulled her back onto the divan. With a smile, she undressed him, to his pleased surprise; usually, he fell upon such girls with a lion's roar and tore their garments, but now, out of respect for his invalid mother — should he give "Mother" a glass eye? No, that was too much — he was passive as she stripped away his clothes. Then, lowering the gas lamp to a mysterious harvest moon glow, she, too, undressed. The body was as marvelous as he had ever experienced, even in Chicago during the recent convention, much less Providence, Rhode Island.
As they lay, side by side, on the bed, he now pleasantly exhausted and she smiling and attentive, he thought that this was just what a poet should do, preferably several times a day. Hay caressed her pale-brown skin, and wondered if anything so beautiful had ever come Poe's way. Actually, if what his poetess friend who had known Poe said was true, Marie-Jeanne was a bit old for the lover of Annabel Lee.
To Hay's astonishment, Marie-Jeanne was thinking along the same lines. As she ran her hand across his smooth chest, she said, "You're younger than I am."
"Oh?" Hay looked down at himself. For some time, he had thought of himself as a nicely finished mature male in excellent working order. Now he wondered if, perhaps, he still looked too boyish. Should he be covered with more hair? Or grow a moustache?
Marie-Jeanne quickly soothed him; and dark limbs entwined with white. "That's what I like," she whispered in his ear. She smelled faintly of sandalwood. He wondered whether or not that was her own natural smell. Certainly, she looked as if she ought to smell of some exotic wood or jungle flower or ... Hay stopped thinking, as again she took control of him.
Even the next day "Johnny" is so energized by his experience with this whore that he turns on Secretary Salmon P. Chase's Page [End Page 14] daughter Kate 'his newly electricized charm" with the "sharp intuitiveness of a man who knows, at a glance, all there is to know about women."
Even worse is Vidal's account of Hay's introducing William H. Herndon to Sal Austin's maison, preceding which Hay gets Herndon sufficiently drunk to elicit secrets about Lincoln's early life after expending his vigor. I shall not quote this. Once is enough!
It is a fact that Herndon visited the White House once in 1862, but Vidal's fictional elaboration is "historical" fiction at its worst. The only excuse for the episode, as I infer, is to manipulate Herndon into telling Hay — whom Herndon distrusted in reality — something that he only told his friend Jesse Weik, who was helping Herndon write his biography, in an unguarded moment many years later; namely, that Lincoln had contracted syphilis as a young man. This is indeed dragging a possibily historical fact in by the tail. Hay was probably the one person least likely to elicite this confidence from Herndon, even if drunk and doing some whoring himself.
When Vidal has Robert Lincoln say to Hay about his father, "He hates his past. He having been a scrub.... He wanted me to be what he couldn't be," I find no excuse.  Robert did admit that he and his father had never been close after he was grown, and he may have felt neglected, but for him to speak thus is beyond comprehension.
There is perhaps 25 percent of the book which is historical, principally in its chronology of events and quotation of what others have written, including Lincoln himself. Even some of these passages are adulterated with Vidal's histrionics, as for example, his theatrical description of Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address. 
How does Lincoln himself come off in this novel which bears his name for title? Better than anyone else, one must admit, but how could it be otherwise? It is pretty hard to caricature Lincoln at this late date, even though Vidal tries on occasion: "his curiously lidded left eye — like a frog's," his posture, his pronunciation, and his beard which "resembled a bird's nest." Incidentally, it is Vidal's contention that Lincoln only began Page [End Page 15] growing the beard on the train to Washington. He has Lincoln say somewhat stupidly, "I had to do something useful on the train." One gets the impression that Vidal has studied the contemporary cartoons more than the photographs. He misses few opportunities to portray Lincoln's crafty, devious dealings with nearly everybody. The one thing I most resented, however, is the perpetuation of "Lincoln's unshaken belief that the colored race was inferior to the white."  Although some liked to think so and some may still, I have never found any such categorical avowal in anything Lincoln wrote or was reported to have said.
There are many purported authenticities which may impress naive readers: Mary's "dingy teeth," or "Queen Victoria smile," and Mrs. Stephen A. Douglas's teeth "not as regular as those of a Greek goddess. But then she did not eat marble." This classic witticism gave me pause to reflect that I have never seen a statue of a Greek goddess showing off her teeth. Perhaps Vidal has. Then there are General Hooker's "glassy eyes" and "dirty" fingers, Nicolay's beard like that of a "goat in the wind" and countless others of similar worth.
But there are so many pseudo-authenticities that I finally stopped noting them, such as Lincoln's calling his old friend Ward Hill Lamon by his first name when Lamon's preference was to have his middle name used by friends. Likewise it was Nicolay's preference for his middle name to be used by friends, so Hill Lamon and George Nicolay were commonly known to friends. But Vidal adopts John Hay's written abbreviation "Nico" for conversational use. These are small matters compared to egreious errors, such as having Lincoln say of the galley proof of his First Inaugural Address, which he gave to son Robert to look after on the way to Washington, and which Robert mislaid at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, "It's the only copy there is.'' Lincoln knew there were other copies, particularly one which he had given Orville Browning back in Springfield. On this and other matters Vidal might well have consulted The Collected Works.
Vidal's "Afterword" especially thanks "Professor David Herbert Donald of Harvard's History Department ... for his patient reading — and correction — of the manuscript." Professor Donald's burden must have been enormous. It boggles one's Page [End Page 16] mind even to try to imagine what Vidal's Lincoln would have been without Professor Donald's patient reading and correction.
My impression is that Vidal writes best about his own time and the people he knows. He might do well to return to this milieu. I suspect, however, that like his artistic counterpart in the world of musical entertainment, Liberace, he will continue to "cry all the way to the bank," with the proceeds of his exploitation of his talent.
In conclusion, I am reminded of something Lincoln said about Stephen A. Douglas: "He has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history...." Page [End Page 17]
- Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935).
- John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, A History (New York: The Century Company, 1890).
- William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1930); Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial Association (New York: S.S. McClure Company, 1895).
- Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1858, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928); Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 2 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1929); Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1939).
- James G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg, 2 vols. (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1945).
- Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952).
- T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967); Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963); Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1982).
- Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose and Letters (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1938), p. 300; Edward Arlington Robinson, "The Master," in The Town Down the River (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910).
- Melvin B. Tolson, "Abraham Lincoln of Rock Springs Farm" in Herbert Hill, ed., Soon, One Morning (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969).
- Mark Van Doren, The Last Days of Lincoln (New York: Hill and Wang, 1959).
- John Drinkwater, Lincoln (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955).
- Gore Vidal, Lincoln (New York: Random House, 1984).
- Gore Vidal, Julian (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1964).
- Vidal, Lincoln, pp. 424–427.
- Ibid., pp. 217–218.
- Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 6: 51.
- Vidal, Lincoln, p. 628ff.
- Ibid., p. 29; p. 31
- Gore Vidal, Myra Breckenridge (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968); Gore Vidal, Myron: A Novel (New York: Random House, 1974).
- Vidal, Lincoln, pp. 79–80.
- Ibid., p. 84.
- Ibid., pp. 287–290.
- Ibid., p. 417.
- Ibid., p. 489ff.
- Ibid., p. 7; p. 153 passim; p. 109; p. 152.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 356.
- Ibid., p. 72; p. 195; p. 387.
- Ibid., p. 353; p. 495.
- Ibid., p. 6.
- Basler, Collected Works, 3: 535.