In this profoundly moving work of epic proportion and intense human sympathy, Abraham Lincoln is observed by his loved ones, his rivals, and his future assassins. Isolated in the ramshackle White House in the center of a pro-slavery city, Lincoln presides over a government that is itself fragmented. Even Lincoln's fellow Republicans treat him with contempt, accuse him of weakness and vacillation, then of highhandedness and dictatorship. Vidal gives us a portrait of America's great president that is at once intimate and public, stark and complex, and that will become for future generations the living Lincoln, the definitive Lincoln.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Modern Library edition, where Vidal is on the board, purchased at the bookstore in the Lincoln Memorial.
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.
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.
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.