Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“Lincoln”, Gore Vidal

August 8th, 2009 · No Comments · China, History, Literature

Synopsis: The second instalment of Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire historical fiction series follows the travails of the United States during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. From the ballot to the bullet as it were.

My Take: It took me a while to give Gore Vidal a try. As regular readers know, I have a bit of hero worship thing going on with Robert Kennedy. And while Vidal was the step-brother by marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy and therefore technically Bobby’s step-brother-in-law-by-marriage-one-removed, the pair famously did not get along.

As a result, my early exposure to Vidal came consisted entirely of a series of highly unflattering accounts in various Kennedy biographies. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr, court historian to the Kennedys writes in his magisterial “Robert Kennedy and his Times” (extracted from Google Books), their relationship was strained from the start:

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Bobby hated Vidal’s pretension (and let’s be frank, his homosexuality) and Vidal hated Bobby’s ruthlessness and impertinence and frequently spoke out against RFK whilst on the campaign trail.

This natural bias against Vidal was further entrenched by the fact that Vidal was similarly estranged from another of my literary favourites, Norman Mailer. Amusingly enough, the feud between this pair of US literary giants culminated in Mailer:

Head-butting him in the green room of The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, then telling him, on-air, that he ruined Kerouac by sleeping with him. Six years later, he threw a drink at Vidal—and punched him—at a Lally Weymouth soirée.

All of which I was very familiar with before having read a single word of Vidal’s writing. So you’ll forgive me if I thought Vidal’s critical bite was bigger than his literary bark.

That was however, before I read Lincoln. Put simply, it’s a tour de force. Historical fiction is an extremely difficult medium to do well. How do you go about credibly writing dialogue for a figure that has been canonised to the extent of Lincoln? If you want to see how badly it can go wrong, go no further than the television mini-series adaptation of “Lincoln” staring Mary Tyler Moore. Fast forward past the credits until you get to the stilted dialogue and overacting and get ready to cringe – it takes a talented writer indeed to avoid coming across as hackneyed or clichéd with subject matter like this.

In “Lincoln”, Vidal pulls off this difficult task with aplomb. Telling his story from multiple perspectives (the primary narrator being Lincoln’s presidential secretary, and later Secretary of State, John Hay),Vidal vividly recreates the world of Civil War era Washington and the massive figures that inhabited it. Luckily, there’s plenty of action in the period for Vidal to draw on to keep his plot moving forward too. Putting to one side the obvious drama of the Civil War, the constant political machinations of Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”, principally his Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, is enough to drive the narrative of a political thriller in its own right.

Highlight: Not from the book itself, but from Vidal’s public response to a critical review of “Lincoln” in The New York Times by a historian unhappy with the historical accuracy of the book. Vidal describes his reviewer as “the author of the captions to several picture books on the Civil War era” and “pleasantly scatterbrained” then goes on to state:

Professor Richard N. Current fusses, not irrelevantly, about the propriety of fictionalizing actual political figures. I also fuss about this. But he has fallen prey to the scholar-squirrels’ delusion that there is a final Truth revealed only to the tenured few in their footnote maze; in this he is simply naive. All we have is a mass of more or less agreed-upon facts about the illustrious dead and each generation tends to rearrange those facts according to what the times require. Current’s text seethes with resentment and I can see why. “Indeed, [Vidal] claims to be a better historian than any of the academic writers on Lincoln (‘hagiographers,’ he calls them).” Current’s source for my unseemly boasting is, God help us, the Larry King radio show, which lasts several hours from midnight on, and no one is under oath for what he says during—in my case—two hours. On the other hand, Larry King, as a source, is about as primary as you can get.

Now it is true as I said on the King show that I have been amazed that there has never been a first-rate biography of Lincoln, as opposed to many very good and—yes, scholarly—studies of various aspects of his career. I think one reason for this lack is that too often the bureaucrats of Academe have taken over the writing of history and most of them neither write well nor, worse, understand the nature of the men they are required to make saints of. In the past, history was the province of literary masters—of Gibbon, Macaulay, Burke, Locke, Carlyle, and, in our time and nation, Academe’s bête noire, Edmund Wilson.

Quite!

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