Gore Vidal’s Lincoln: Insight Into a Presidency, Insight Into an Author
What is it about Abraham Lincoln that so attracts authors and readers? Why have there been 15,000 books written about him -- reportedly more than have been written about any other person in world history, with the exception of Jesus Christ? And what was it about Gore Vidal, the famously acerbic author who died on July 31, 2012, that brought out so much intensity in the obituary columns? Gore Vidal's Lincoln is a good place to start looking for answers.
While Vidal wrote mysteries, plays, and television scripts over a career that spanned six decades, he became best known for a series of historical novels about American history. Of these, Lincoln may have been his most successful. The book focuses almost exclusively on the sixteenth American presidency itself, beginning shortly before Lincoln's 1861 inauguration and ending at his assassination four years later.
Though it was clearly well researched, Vidal was not writing a scholarly history. Rather, he was a storyteller, with a focus on gossip and personality quirks that gives the reader immediate access to some of the most dramatic scenes in our country's history. Lincoln himself is not portrayed as a monolithic leader carved out of granite; he is shown as a shrewd political operator who still sometimes bumbles from one crisis to the next, deeply conflicted about slavery and a lightning rod for abuse. Then again, given our current political polarization, Vidal suggested, it is useful to consider what disunity really looks like. Washington, D.C., during wartime was filled with secessionists, Lincoln's brothers-in-law were rebel army officers, assassination plots were common, and even the President's nominal allies were scheming to replace him with a dictator.
Historical novels work best when they go beyond chronicling what happened to show us how people really lived. Vidal gives us what we want: a tour of the local brothels, a drunken general who won't fight, a First Lady who plunges ever deeper into debt to finance her redecoration plans, a drugstore clerk with Walter Mitty-like dreams of fighting for the Confederacy, a Cabinet member obsessed with adding to his collection of famous signatures, and "the smell of rotting animals and excrement and stagnant water from the canal" that periodically wafts through the White House. While there are some fictional characters, most of the characters are based on real people. While we can never know the truth about any historical event, Vidal clearly had a lot of fun speculating about the origins and growth of our American empire.
In real life, Gore Vidal was complex, never shying from controversy or attention. He famously battled with people like William Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and, for that matter, anyone else who crossed him. He saw himself as a character, which may be why his Lincoln is so full of great characters. However many red-state-blue-state buffoons we now have on our political stage, he seemed to be telling us, it's a safe bet that things were once worse.