The sad legacy of a liberator
LINCOLN By Gore Vidal
(Random House, 657 pages, $26.50)
In the first three volumes of his American Chronicle—Burr, 1876 and Washington, D. C. — Gore Vidal peeped through keyholes into the back rooms of bygone power. He caught the rich and famous in compromising positions and, with the keen edge of his wit, slashed the pretensions of heroes including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In Lincoln, his 19th novel and the fourth book in the chronicle, Vidal scrutinizes the United States’ most revered president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln would seem to be an ideal target for Vidal’s habitually cold eye. But his lengthy latest work breaks the pattern of irreverence because the author genuinely likes his subject. And that may be why, when compared to his previous novels, Lincoln seems so humorless, ponderous and sad.
Vidal and the hero of the novel share the same ironic, at times cynical, interpretation of the events of the turbulent 1860s. Lincoln only became a hero in the public’s eye because his federalist Union forces ultimately won the U.S. Civil War—a bloody, bungled affair that Lincoln himself had initiated. Vidal’s Honest Abe would have been amused to know that he would one day be famous as the president who freed the slaves; in the book he expresses a desire to export all Negroes back to the jungle. Because the author uses rumors of an assassination plot against Lincoln as the frame for the story—the book ends shortly after actor John Wilkes Booth fires the fatal bullet on April 14, 1865—its melancholy hero lives under a perpetual cloud of menace, which news of the victories by the Confederate armies under Gen. Robert E. Lee only serves to intensify.
The book describes the Civil War as Lincoln would have experienced it, removed from the carnage. But that point of view forfeits the passion that created the Lincoln legend. The action stays close to both the White House, a feverridden ramshackle old mansion in which the president’s vain, hysterical wife, Mary, is slowly going mad, and the claustrophobic salons of the president’s corrupt associates in the cabinet. Vidal is skilled at setting each political backroom scene with painstaking detail, but his obsession with Washington chitchat becomes tedious and irritatingly repetitive in the epic context of the Civil War. Among the book’s most curious omissions are scenes of the war’s great battles at Bull Run and Atlanta and portraits of the great Confederate leaders, Lee and President Jefferson Davis. Even Booth, the assassin, appears late in the novel.
Still, the portrait of Lincoln is entirely sympathetic and human. An earnest, upright, charming man adept at storytelling and statesmanship, he turns a blind eye to the corruption and chaos of his administration—but, slyly, appoints the most ambitious political figures of his time to his own cabinet, “where I can keep an eye on them.” Vidal portrays Lincoln’s solitude, the squalor of his surroundings and his almost suicidal despair with great tenderness. His brief, understated description of the president’s address to the people of Gettysburg is profoundly moving. But the book lacks the bite of its predecessors. Missing, too, is the cheeky narrator of Burr and 1867— that cozy, confidential voice with the stinging tongue whose own humble story unfolds beside that of his patron. Instead, Lincoln is an old-fashioned historical novel: slow, weighty, omniscient and monumental. In Vidal’s eyes, Lincoln was not fighting Confederates who sought to destroy the Union; he was battling greed, hypocrisy and injustice. To the author, Lincoln’s murder and the Civil War marked the death of the U.S. revolutionary dream and the birth of a new, materialistic United States spoiling for a fight. Vidal treats that legacy with deadly seriousness.
MACLEAN’S BEST SELLER LIST
1 The Aquitaine Progression,
2 The Haj, Uris (2)
3Heretics of Dune, Herbert (3)
4Full Circle, Steele (It)
5The Walking Drum, L Amour (6)
6 The Leopard Hunts in Darkness, Smith (5)
7The New Kit Williams, Williams (10)
8 Poland, Michener (7)
10 Lord of the Dance, Greeley (8)
1 Vengeance, Jonas (1)
2 Sex and Destiny, Greer (2)
3Eat to Win, Haas (It)
4The March of Folly, Tuchman (3)
5Knock Wood, Bergen (5)
6 The Game, Dry den (6)
8Bloody Victory, Granatstein and Morton
9Home Sweet Home, Richler (8)
10 Past Imperfect, Collins (7)
( ) Position last week