Lincoln : A Novel

by Gore Vidal

Hardcover, 1984

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Random House, 1984.

Description

A historical novel recounts the events of Lincoln's presidency after his arrival in Washington, D.C. in 1861.

Media reviews

The New Republic
As Vidal intended it to be, the work is literal, solid, and reverent. It is somber, for its subject is somber. Like Vidal himself, observers at the time saw Lincoln's obsession with funny stories as a homely screen behind which the sphinx sheltered his true face from the savageries of the time, savageries which were strangely organic to him and which grew as it were from his person. But the assiduity of Lincoln has a stodginess to it as well, as if the awesome subject has defeated all whimsy. Again, if Burr and 1876 had not prepared the reader, it would be hard to associate this novel with the dancing boy of American letters.
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The Observer
'Rebirth to his nation' is probably, knowing Mr Vidal's cinematic background, a deliberate device to evoke the 14th Amendment, the carpetbaggers and the Klu Klux Klan. The interesting, or Vidalian, things are often on the margin in this novel, and all the rest is history sedulously followed and minimally dramatized. It is a novel not of great battles but of telegrams about them arriving at the White House...

Lincoln belongs to that popular and very American pseudo-fictional genre which Mr Vidal, concentrating particularly on Mr Wouk, condescendingly accepts as wholesome if simplistic teaching but condemns for pretending to be a kind of literature. Irving Stone has written on Michelangelo, Freud and Darwin in much the same way ('Sighing, he lighted a fresh cigar, and wrote his title: The Interpretation of Dreams'). James A. Michener has made a vast fortune out of blockbusting history tomes, well researched and indifferently written, which are presented as novels. There is something in the puritanical American mind which is scared of the imaginative writer but not of the pedantic one who seems to humanize facts without committing himself to the inventions which are really lies.

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
A flattering blurb on the cover from Harold Bloom and one inside from Joyce Carol Oates certainly underlines this is a serious book; it's also an engaging and entertaining one, one that portrays the personalities and political machinations during the Civil War. Lincoln isn't just a celebrated American president, one considered one of the greatest in our history, he's still polarizing and controversial on both sides of the political divide. He's accused of trampling on rights from that of states to leave the union to individual rights such as due process of law. Vidal doesn't gloss over any of that. He depicts the Lincoln administration's suspension of habeas corpus, shutting down of opposing newspapers, institution of the draft and fiat money and Lincoln's scheme to remove freed slaves to a foreign colony. Vidal, though, does put all that ugliness in the context of the desperate struggle to hold the country together. His Lincoln is cunning, ambitious, driven, obsessed with holding the union together no matter what the personal or national cost and a master politician.

The book's first part conveys just how precarious things were for Lincoln and the nation from the initial days of secession when he as President-elect had to sneak into Washington, a capitol surrounded on all sides by slave states on the brink of joining the conflict. The second part takes us from just after the first battle of Bull Run through Lincoln's attempts to find a general who'll energetically prosecute the war, the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg. In the final Part Lincoln finds his general in Ulysses S. Grant and his destiny at Ford's Theater.

The story is told through various perspectives--though never Lincoln's. We mostly follow the perspectives of two cabinet level secretaries with presidential ambitions, the imperialist Seward and abolitionist Chase, and two young men with opposing loyalties, John Hay, one of Lincoln's personal secretaries, and David Herold, drawn into the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. I read this novel having recently read The Killer Angels, an excellent novelization of the Battle of Gettysburg. This made a wonderful compliment, giving me a view of the entire war centering upon Abraham Lincoln. Serious as the book is, it takes a satirical view at times of its characters (and a cynical view of politics), and one of the more humorous scenes is when Samuel Chase meets with job-seeking Walt Whitman. The book has an exuberance in the gossipy way it presents the various ambitious quirky personalities that keeps the story from being depressing despite the tragic events it treats, from national to personal. The picture of the troubled and troublesome First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, unstable from the beginning and further unhinged by her son's death, is particularly vivid and poignant. The novel is a fascinating portrait of a complex man and his presidency.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Like Burr, this is a clever, perceptive and well-argued bit of political historical fiction. The complex, evolving portrait of Lincoln as seen through the eyes of a selection of the people around him is fascinating. We are steered through the tortuous political and military history of the American civil war without feeling either baffled or patronised. I don't know enough about the subject to comment on Vidal's accuracy, but his account certainly comes over as coherent and confident.

Unfortunately, also as in Burr, Vidal's failing seems to be an inability to construct interesting minor characters. Since it is the minor characters through whose eyes we follow the story, to maintain our interest we need them to come alive and be more than stereotypes, something that rarely or never happens: moreover, a substantial proportion of this already overlong book is taken up with tedious and repetitive transitional passages re-introducing the minor characters whenever the viewpoint switches.

I wonder how much this apparent weakness is an inherent problem of the faceted approach to historical fiction? Maybe it is inevitable in a book like this that all the interest and complexity is sucked into the central character, and the viewpoint characters suffer accordingly. The more so since Vidal is clearly someone who is more interested in explaining the historical and political process than in entering imaginatively into the minds of the people involved. Fiction is a means for him, not an end in itself. He set himself a very difficult task here, writing what is in effect an American War and Peace: obviously something had to give somewhere.

This has obviously been a very influential book in terms of the way American presidents are represented in fiction. Amongst other echoes, I was struck by the way so much of Vidal's technique here was taken over by the writers of the recent television drama The West Wing (whether consciously or unconsciously). But multiple-POV is a more natural convention to work with on the screen than on paper, so it probably wouldn't be fair to say that The West Wing did a better job of making minor characters interesting.
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LibraryThing member BobNolin
Kind of disappointing. This is the first book of Vidal's (that I've read) that didn't seem to have a political agenda, or vendetta, unless you consider presenting Lincoln as a human being with faults to be a radical statement. Uses the points of view of Chase, Seward, mostly, some of Mary Todd Lincoln, and David Herold, a Rebel sympathizer. It's really not a Lincoln biography (of his Presidency) in novel form. Instead, it's a novel showing the relationships of the POV characters to Lincoln. It's very gossipy. The "camera" moves from one room to another, showing a group or pair of people discussing things, gossiping, planning, conniving. There's not enough background information. If you don't know what the Soldier's Home is, you won't learn it here, and you'll wonder why Lincoln is spending time there (it was the Summer White House). You'll enjoy the book more if you've read up on the Civil War first. But as for learning about who the Great Man was really, I was disappointed. Why did he decide that the South could not secede? As John Hay states at the book's end, they had every right to, Constitutionally. Why did he decide to release the Emancipation Proclamation (freeing slaves in the seceded states)? What was his goal? Not really explained.

From what I've read, "Team of Rivals" takes the same approach this book did. I might find it more satisfying, at least as far as getting answers. Vidal's Lincoln was an easy read, but not very satisfying.

One final complaint: often the scene switches to another setting or weeks later, and there is nothing to indicate it: no line or double space break. Just a paragraph break. This made the book confusing at times.
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LibraryThing member hugh_ashton
Re-reading this book. I have to confess that I like certain tricks of Vidal's style so much that I borrow them without attribution. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, and I happen to think that on a good day, Vidal writes well and economically and is worth attempting to imitate.

Subject matter - I have read several books on Lincoln and his cabinet members, and Vidal's is the only one, even though it's a novel, that makes political and psychological sense of this rather complex man and his times. Maybe it will annoy the hagiographers, who want to make Lincoln out as some kind of backwoods saint, but it's not disrespectful, either.… (more)
LibraryThing member wit10born
Lincoln is a profoundly moving novel of our most venerable President. Part of Gore Vidal's American chronicle, Lincoln is a portrait of a complex man as seen by his adoring wife, Mary; by scheming Secretary of State William Seward; by his bitter rival, Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and his daughter Kate; by David Herold, one of the Southern sympathizers behind the plot to assassinate Lincoln; and by 23-year old presidential secretary John Hay. This vivid and intriguing book should be a mainstay in anyone's collection of historical fiction.… (more)
LibraryThing member estamm
I really hated this book. Part of it was the extraordinarily confusing writing. Sometimes it is impossible to tell who is saying what. Scenes and times will shift almost within a sentence. (Well, after a paragraph, but there should have been a space before the next paragraph if not a new chapter to clearly indicate that THERE IS A MAJOR SCENE CHANGE.) For such a 'major' work, this was tremendously disappointing.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Considered part of the Western Canon by Harold Bloom. It is a well researched novel that gives an indepth portrait of Linoln and midninteenth centiry Washington D.C. during the American Civil War.
LibraryThing member tnelson217
I loved this book. I'm on a Lincoln kick and I'm watching where it leads me. See my lists to see what I'm planning next. I started with Gore Vidal's Lincoln because it was one of the 300 books of Aunt Shazi's that I absorbed into my library during Fall 2008. I was enthralled with this book. It is one of the best historical fiction novels I have read. The author did his job . . . he drew me into this time and place and people in a way that history books have never done. This in turn has driven me to the history books . . . and the museums . . . and the battlefields. Vidal has sparked the yen to know more, and at the same time has nurtured this sense that I know these unkowable paragons of history. What more could the author of a historical novel hope to acheive?… (more)
LibraryThing member jlcarroll
Vidal makes Lincoln human: a politician by trade and a definitive leader by circumstance. An excellent read to mark the 200th anniversary of Old Abe's birth.
LibraryThing member name99
I listened to an abrreviated audiobook version of this, not out of choice but because it was all the library had. It may be that this was unfair to the novel, that what makes it a joy are the details an abbreviation omits.

Be that as it may, this abbreviation disappointed me. The material on what a loser Mary Todd Lincoln was was interesting, similarly for the material on how scandals were covered up in those days.
But I expect I would have been happier with a good biography.
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LibraryThing member Borg-mx5
An excellent book, continuing in his series of historical fiction. Vidal mixes real and fictional characters seamlessly and adds anecdotal characterizations which make the characters all the more interesting.
LibraryThing member Smiley
Probably Vidal's masterpiece of historical fiction. He is able to give us a vivid portrait of Lincoln because we see him only reflected through the eyes of other characters. Vidal, wisely, never attempts to enter the mind of his fictional Lincoln.

Modern Library edition, where Vidal is on the board, purchased at the bookstore in the Lincoln Memorial.… (more)
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
My second favorite of Vidal's historical novels (my favorite: _1876_). One learns about a very complex figure who played such an important part in our history. Conflicted and human, he nevertheless comes through as a genius.
LibraryThing member Mitchell_Bergeson_Jr
A masterful work, very entertaining and indepth. I particularly enjoyed how Mr. Vidal portrayed Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet and how the members clashed and developed as the war progressed. It is a political thriller, and overall a book that never dulls.
LibraryThing member NaggedMan
I found it un-put-downable!. Having not studied the people or the period, I've no idea how close Vidal gets to the character of Lincoln, nor his conduct (or not!) of the civil war, but this is after all a novel and, as such, felt as though one really knows the inside story. Read it.
LibraryThing member MLJLibrary
Lincoln is the cornerstone of Gore Vidal's fictional American chronicle, which includes Burr, 1876, Washington, D.C., Empire, and Hollywood. It opens early on a frozen winter morning in 1861, when President-elect Abraham Lincoln slips into Washington, flanked by two bodyguards. The future president is in disguise, for there is talk of a plot to murder him. During the next four years there will be numerous plots to murder this man who has sworn to unite a disintegrating nation. Isolated in a ramshackle White House in the center of a proslavery city, Lincoln presides over a fragmenting government as Lee's armies beat at the gates. In this profoundly moving novel, a work of epic proportions and intense human sympathy, Lincoln is observed by his loved ones and his rivals. The cast of characters is almost Dickensian: politicians, generals, White House aides, newspapermen, Northern and Southern conspirators, amiably evil bankers, and a wife slowly going mad. Vidal's portrait of the president is at once intimate and monumental, stark and complex, drawn with the wit, grace, and authority of one of the great historical novelists. With a new Introduction by the author.… (more)
LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
Very good historical fiction, but it took me a while to finish this one about Lincoln. When I read historical fiction, the less I know about events, the more intriguing the novel tends to be. We all pretty much know the basics about Lincoln, so this was not really a page-turner for me.

Next up in historical order of Vidal's Narrative of Empire series is 1876, which I'm actually currently reading and enjoying far more -- it seems better written overall, too.… (more)
LibraryThing member dherrick52
By novelizing his biography of Lincoln, Gove Vidal allows us to get a sense of Lincoln's genius for politics, his sense of humor, and how he interacted with his cabinet, the Congress, and the American people to lead during the Civil War.
LibraryThing member wdoshier
Great Book
LibraryThing member dougwood57
Gore Vidal's 'Lincoln' immerses the reader in Civil War Washington with rich detail. Vidal introduces few fictional characters and hews close to the known historical record in brilliantly recreating actions and conversations. Lincoln emerges as a master political strategist who invites his chief adversaries into his Administration and then lulls them into thinking they and not he are the real powers. By the time Lincoln acheives near complete power, Chase and Seward are unsure just how it happened.

By the end, this reader more pitied than despised Mary Todd Lincoln, but felt both emotions in full towards Lincoln's vicious and insane wife. Salmon Chase comes in for a richly deserved measure of disrepute with his incessant political ambitions. Lesser known characters such William Sprague and 'Chevalier' Henry Wikoff add color and dishonor. The examination of Lincoln's second secretary, John Hay, is fascinating and enlightening.

Vidal inserts several rebels into the story, including a glory-hound named David Herold. These characters are real, but little is known about them and it shows. A reduced role for these characters would have mercifully shortened the extraordinary length of the book.

Vidal controversially has Lincoln continuing to advocate the colonization of freed slaves right up until the day of his assassination. My understanding of the generally accepted view is that Lincoln had long since abadnoned colonization as a viable policy.

Vidal's 'Lincoln' is historical fiction at its finest - entertaining and elucidating. Highly recommended.
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