Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal

dust jacket cover is all textGore Vidal’s Lincoln is an absolutely marvelous historical novel, far too good to interest average American readers who propelled North and South to the 1984 bestseller list.

Vidal doesn’t invent stories: He pulls out the stories hidden in historical documents, translates them into contemporary language, and puts them in dramatic context. He lets readers can decode the character and motivation of persons long since dead.

Vidal’s focus is Lincoln’s “White House” years. (During Lincoln’s occupancy, it was called the President’s House.)

The novel opens February, 1861 with president-elect Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, disguised in plain clothes and guarded by detective Allan Pinkerton.

The country has split over slavery.

Several “cotton republics” have already seceded from the Union.

Lincoln’s life has been threatened.

Lincoln has one overriding goal: Maintaining the unity of the states.

Vidal weaves into his narrative contrasting and conflicting impressions of Lincoln held by the people with whom he spent the most time:  His personal staff, his cabinet, and the generals who he is forced to rely on to fight to save the Union.

Vidal’s writing is sparklingly clear and bubbles with humor.

Through the multiplicity of viewpoints, Vidal provides nuanced picture of President Lincoln, the politician.

Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal
Random House 1st ed. 1984. 657 p.
1984 bestseller #10; my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

The Passions of the Mind: Where’s the novel?

In The Passions of the Mind, Irving Stone presents Sigmund Freud as a family man who works hard, walks fast, and writes prodigiously while smoking expensive cigars.

The random pattern represents the Passions of the Mind
Random pattern represents the mind.

He also loves Renaissance art, collecting antiquities, and reading literature.

Freud takes a medical degree, intending to go into research instead of treating patients. Circumstances conspire against him; he ends up practicing as a neurologist in Vienna.

Freud’s inability to treat by conventional means patients whose symptoms don”t arise from physical causes lead him into what in later years would become known as psychoanalysis.

Freud is determined to have his theories accepted by the medical community. To that end, he befriends and nurtures younger analysts, several of whom he supports financially as well as emotionally.

Stone reveals Freud as frequently unaware of the import of events around him, both among fellow practitioners and nationally.

Only as the Freud family suffers deprivation in WWII Vienna and Sigmund develops cancer of the mouth does the analyst begin to seem like a real person.

Stone’s meticulous research (the novel includes a bibliography and a glossary of psychoanalytic terms) will appeal to those already interested in Freud.

Readers looking for an interesting story will be quit reading long before Freud sees his first patient.

The Passions of the Mind: A Novel of Sigmund Freud by Irving Stone
Doubleday, ©1971. [Book club edition.] 856 p.
1971 bestseller #3. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Great Lion of God is a mangy beast

The Apostle Paul is one of the towering figures of the New Testament, but little is known of his pre-Damascus Road experiences.

dust jacket of Great Lion of God features lion rampant
Lion rampant symbolizes courage, nobility.

In Great Lion of God, Taylor Caldwell imagines a Jewish-Roman family and childhood experiences to account for his behavior in later life.

Not content with that, she also deliberately sets out to draw comparisons between the Roman era and twentieth century America, with an ultimate goal, she says in her introduction, to influence people to study the scriptures.

With all those weighty goals, it’s no surprise the novel feels as if it’s back is broken.

Caldwell extensively researched the background of her story and the pictures she draws of the different communities and cultures in the first century are fascinating. Unfortunately, the historical characters she moves through these scenes are not fascinating.

Caldwell’s attempt to make Paul appear a man like ourselves backfires: Readers won’t want to be like Paul. From childhood, the Paul of the novel is cold and generally unpleasant.

Even the youthful sexual experience Caldwell invents to account for Paul’s alleged anti-woman attitudes doesn’t make him interesting. The man is boring.

If you’re interested in Paul, read his letters: He’s at his best there.

Great Lion of God by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1970. Book Club Edition. 597 pp.
1970 bestseller #5. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lady of the Decoration finds healing in work

Postcard of street scene in Yokohama, Japan about 1900 shows cluttered sidewalks, rickshaws, telephone poles.
After her husband’s death in 1900, a Southern belle agrees to teach kindergarten in a mission school in Hiroshima.

She needs the money. She also needs to regain her equilibrium after a bad, seven-year marriage.


The Lady of the Decoration by Frances Little¹
1907 bestseller #1. Project Gutenberg ebook #7523. My grade: B.

The kindergartners salute her, thinking the enameled watch pinned to her bodice is a medal from the Emperor. They call her The Lady of the Decoration.

She, in turn, is fascinated by Japan’s scenery and people, especially the children. She longs to “take the whole lot of them to my heart and love them into an education.”

The Lady records her experiences in letters to her cousin back in Kentucky.

A vivacious blonde, the Lady causes a stir among the Japanese adults as well as the children.

When the Russo-Japanese War breaks out, she’s vocally pro-Japan, helping care for wounded soldiers.

Thanks to the Lady’s buoyant humor, despite the poverty and suffering she sees and the homesickness and unhappiness she often feels, the novel makes cheerful bedtime reading

Readers never learn the letter writer’s name, but they learn to know her. She sums up the years 1901–1905 in a letter:

I don’t care a rap for the struggle and the heart aches, if I have only made good. When I came out there were two kindergartens, now there are nine besides a big training class. Anybody else could have done as much for the work but one thing is certain, the work couldn’t have done for anyone else what it has done for me.


¹Frances Little is the pseudonym of American author Fannie Caldwell Macaulay. The Lady of the Decoration was her first, and most successful novel.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The glory of Glorious Apollo has dulled

Glorious Apollo is a fictional biography of the 18th century Romantic poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Byron comes from a family noted for philandering and profligacy. He achieves notoriety in those areas before he achieves fame as a poet.


Glorious Apollo by E. Barrington*

Dodd, Mead and Company, 1925, 371 pages.  1925 bestseller #4. My grade: C+.


portrait of Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron

Byron is,  as one of his lovers says, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

When his poems become valuable, Byron refuses to accept money for them (It wouldn’t be gentlemanly), but he’ll gladly marry for money.

Byron selects a unimpeachable young woman, Anne Milbanke, scorning her almost from the moment of the marriage.

When tales of her husband’s relationships become common knowledge — including one with his half sister – Anne secures a separation.

Byron goes into exile in Europe. He is such a celebrity that a telescope is set up in Geneva so British tourists can watch his home.

Aided by booze, drugs, and the poet Shelley, Byron sinks further into degradation. He’s dead at age 33.

An encyclopedia entry is more explicit and titilating than the portrait produced by author E. Barrington*. Through generalizations and circumlocutions, she manages to make her novel bland almost to the point of boredom.

Today’s readers will find little to applaud in Glorious Apollo other than fragments of history.

*E. Barrington is a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Louisa Moresby Adams Beck

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Immortal Wife is a lifeless figure

Jessie, the favorite daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, grows up working with her father, breathing politics, and believing it is America’s manifest destiny to rule from Atlantic to Pacific.


Immortal Wife: The Biographical Novel

of Jessie Benton Fremont by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1944. 450 pages. 1945 bestseller # 10. My Grade: B-.


Jessie Benton Fremont wears hair in pompadour style with ringlets, has cameo on ribbon around her neck
Jessie Benton Fremont

At 16, Jessie falls in love with John Fremont, a military topographer ambitious to make a name for himself that would override the tinge of his illegitimate origins.

Jesse is determined to make her marriage stronger than either of them.

John leads four expeditions to map the unexplored frontier so settlers could move west to keep the Spanish and British from annexing the Pacific Coast. He wins the respect of people on the frontier – and the displeasure of politicians in Washington.

John’s career is a series of great exploits and monumental failures.

He makes and loses a fortune in gold mining.

He is defeated in the 1860 presidential race, even though he wins more votes than the winner.

Lincoln strips Fremont of his command in the early days of the Civil War.

After John dies, Jessie reflects that she never understood him.

Readers will feel that they don’t understand Jessie either.

Irving Stone makes the period history interesting, but he fails to make his heroine come alive.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Those Who Love: Romantic, Educational, Hopeful

John Adams was “nothing but a lawyer” when Abigail Smith married him, but he was determined to be the best lawyer he could be.

Early on, John spent weeks “riding circuit” while “Nabby” took care of house, farm, and family.

Abigail and John


Those Who Love by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1965. 647 pages. 1965 bestseller #6. My grade A-.


As John rose professionally, even more of the couple’s lives were lived apart. Fortunately for us, both were prolific writers of letters and journals.

By careful selection and judicious updating of the 18th century language, Irving Stone transformed their words into a novel that rings true today.

Since Stone published his novel about the Adams family, their lives were chronicled on stage and on television. Those productions may have rendered the general outline of their lives familiar, making Stone’s nuanced novel all the more appealing.

Stone relates Those Who Love primarily from Abigail’s perspective, revealing the bread and butter aspects of the long struggle to build a nation.

That vantage point allows Stone to downplay the partisanship and animosities almost split America in the days of Adams, Tom Jefferson, and  Ben Franklin.

Reading Those Who Love may give us hope that statesmen may arise to pull together our own divided national government.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The portrait of Abigail Adams is from the National First Ladies Library. It was painted by an unknown artist at the time of her wedding. The portrait of John Adams by Asher Brown Durand was released by the United States Navy with the ID 031029-N-6236G-001. Both works are in the public domain.

History Trumps Story in Love Is Eternal

The trouble with historical novels is that they have to be historically accurate. To meet this demand, authors often must attempt to account logically for illogical human behavior.

Irving Stone’s Love Is Eternal: A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln is a case in point.

the Lincoln family
According to the novel’s dust jacket, Stone’s goal is to take readers inside Mary Todd’s heart; however, even getting into her head would take a team of psychiatrists: Both Mary Todd and Lincoln suffered from depression that at times was almost pathological.

(The liner notes also say “Literally the whole [Civil] war was fought across her bosom,” a claim whose veracity I doubt. But I literally digress.)

Irving devotes most of the novel to the Lincolns’ political struggles. Stone shows Mary shrewdly aware of how the successful politician’s wife should behave but totally unaware that her husband’s election to the presidency was a fluke of the electoral system, not an indication of his popularity.

Readers get very little sense of the Lincolns as a couple before the White House and no sense of the Lincolns as a couple afterward.

Stone ends Love Is Eternal with Abraham Lincoln’s widow wanting to die.

And he leaves readers with no reason to want her to live.

Readers may enjoy these photos of Lincoln more than Stone’s novel.  I’m indebted to @dougpete for the link.

Love Is Eternal:
A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
By Irving Stone
Doubleday, 1954
1954 bestseller #3
462 pages
My grade: B-
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Song of Bernadette falls on deaf ears

Sanctuary of Lourdes
Sanctuary of Lourdes

Fleeing the Nazis as France collapsed, Franz Werfel took refuge in Lourdes. When he reached safety in America, he wrote a fictionalized biography of the peasant girl whose visions brought fame to Lourdes and sainthood to herself. That background is the most interesting part of The Song of Bernadette.

In 1858 Bernadette Soubirous, a dull-witted girl from the poorest strata of French society, is preparing for her first communion. While gathering firewood with some other girls, she sees a vision of a beautiful lady. The vision has scarcely faded before news gets around that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette, though Bernadette says the lady never identified herself.

When a neighbor claims her son was miraculously healed by water from a spring Bernadette unearthed at the lady’s direction, church and state suspect Bernadette and her family are hatching some scheme to defraud the public.

The public, however, supports Bernadette.

Unable to disprove the healings or find any fraud, the Church hustles Bernadette into a convent where she spends the rest of her life.

Readers will find Bernadette as dull as did the 19th century clergy and politicos who interrogated her. Worse, they’ll find Werfel’s ponderous, page-long paragraphs a real bore.

The Song of Bernadette
Franz Werfel
Trans. Ludwig Lewisohn
Viking Press, 1942
575 pages
1942 Bestseller #1
My Grade: C-

Photo Credit: Sanctuary of Lourdes 1 (2008) Uploaded by optitech http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1057405

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Moses Reveals Biblical Exodus Setting

In Moses, Sholem Asch presents the great Jewish leader as a human being without trivializing his spirituality.  However, the novel finest achievement is its depiction of the Jews that Moses led out of Egypt.

Asch shows the Jews as just one small segment of the huge slave population of Egypt. The Egyptians ran the slave operations through Jewish overseers, much as the Nazis were to do centuries later.  The “mixed multitude” that accompanied the Jews were from those slaves.

The story line follows the biblical narrative, adding details to explain some of the elements that often bewilder today’s readers. For example, since no slaves were allowed to worship any god, the request to go three day’s journey into the desert makes more sense. Moses leads the Jews out across the Reed Sea:  the Red Sea is miles away from the exodus route.

Asch makes readers understand how stressful the desert journey would have been to people raised in a land with abundant water and fertile soil and why they resented the Levites who seemed to get the choicest of everything.

All told, you’ll find Moses an accessible and entertaining overview of an important historical period.

Moses
By Sholem Asch
Trans. Maurice Samuel
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
1951 #3 bestseller
505 pages

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni