Gore 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Vidal doesn’t invent stories: He pulls out the stories hidden in historical documents, translates them into contemporary language, and puts them in dramatic context.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+
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.
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
1954 bestseller #3
My grade: B-
Irving Bacheller has set his novel A Man for the Ages in the guise of an historical account drawn from the narrator’s family diaries and oral history. The result of this literary stratagem is neither a wholly satisfactory history or a wholly satisfactory novel.
Samson Traylor and his family left Vermont in 1831 to settle in Illinois. Samson is a gentle giant, wise and loyal. He makes friends easily and makes enemies only when principles are at stake.
One of the first people the Traylors meet in Illinois is young Abe Lincoln, with whom they are to be lifelong friends.
The novel twists around the misfortunes of Harry, a lad the Traylors take in, and Bim, the local lass whom he loves; both their stories repeatedly cross that of Lincoln.
A Man for the Ages has too much plot resting on too little character support to be an entertaining novel. The historical elements, however, provide interesting reading.
For example, Lincoln’s personal business failures are well-known. Less well-known is how Lincoln’s lack of business acumen contributed to a land speculation bubble that nearly bankrupted the state and did bankrupt many of its citizens.
A Man for the Ages may not excite you, but it won’t waste your time.
A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy
By Irving Bacheller
Illus.by John Wolcott Adams
1920 bestseller # 5
Project Gutenberg ebook #17237
My Grade: B-