Review: Lincoln

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a meticulously researched historical novel about the years of Lincoln’s presidency primarily through the eyes of his staff.  It’s no great challenge to find the facts about the Lincoln years, but Vidal’s telling makes the people real and the changes to the nation visceral.

Lincoln is heralded as a master politician, and the record shows his skills.  It’s one thing to read about those skills and to understand in the abstract how careful footwork and forethought made a political nobody into the President in a few short years.  It is quite another to watch Gore’s fictionalized Lincoln outmaneuver a viper in the cabinet that has been denigrating his judgment and plotting against him for half the book.  It is a brilliant scene, with Lincoln maneuvering Salmon Chase into a literal no-win position with lawyerly tactics and superlative control.  Then, even as Lincoln exults in the triumph, he has compassion for the seductive influence of power that drove Chase to make his play, recalling that the same thirst placed him in the presidency.  As I say, all these goings on are supported by the historical record, but Vidal brings it alive with the nuance and power of a great writer.

In addition to making the historical figures as big as life, Vidal’s interested in capturing the metamorphosis of the nation as well.  Lincoln’s four years in office saw some of the largest growth in Federal power in our history, as well as some of the largest abuses of that power.  People are jailed for exercising their freedom of speech, the treasury begins directly controlling currency, a huge army is created, and other expansions.  Again, the record is clear, but Vidal brings his radical’s eye and novelist’s voice to explaining the changes.  He knows and shows the effects of the changes, but never presents the choices as cut and dried.  He makes no excuses, nor conjures any demons.

It isn’t hard to imagine his depictions of Lincoln, Seward and Chase in the cabinet of Barack Obama or of George W. Bush.  That alone is thought provoking.

All that makes the book sound like a civics assignment; it is anything but.  His characters are fascinating and dramatic, and his Lincoln is every bit the charming, disarming, dedicated man that history shows us.  There is drama, pathos, and comedy throughout.  Even if you have no interest in pondering the kind of man Lincoln was or how the mechanisms of government changed between 1861 and 1864, the book is interesting and entertaining.

Strongly Recommended.

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