It's time to reread Gore Vidal's enduring Lincoln | News Feature | Indy Week
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It's time to reread Gore Vidal's enduring Lincoln 

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Gore Vidal, a self-described narrator of empire, seems to enjoy nothing more than puncturing sacrosanct American icons. In novels and non-fiction he savages the "founding fathers," portraying them as real, contemporary, political and, above all, thoroughly corruptible. In Vidal's literary universe, the gods descend from Rushmore and become pedestrian—and it's not hard to imagine a Larry Craig or Rod Blagojevich among them.

In Vidal's non-fiction Inventing a Nation, George Washington reigns as a pompous buffoon more concerned about the finances of his plantation than the young nation he's siring. Thomas Jefferson gets a caustic spraying of Vidalic acid in the historical novel Burr, where, through the eyes of his vice president and political rival Aaron Burr, the author of the Declaration of Independence appears as an eccentric, hypocritical and vindictive tyrant—and that's before Vidal mentions the curiously ginger-haired slaves at Monticello. Besides the sly Burr, who is largely forgotten in popular history, virtually the only prominent American statesman that Vidal seems to genuinely admire is the subject of his massive 1984 novel, Lincoln.

Vidal knows American politics—the son of a political dynasty, he ran (losing) campaigns for both houses of Congress—and in recreating 1860s Washington, he remained cognizant of this enduring reality: Success in politics requires pettiness, insincerity and the machinations of the blackguard. Drawing on a variety of sources (especially the writings of Lincoln's private secretary, John Hay), Vidal paints Lincoln as a supreme master of his mediocre profession—politics. But the curious thing about Lincoln's subject is that while he remains a politician (a good one—and in the political arena, good can only mean successful), he also becomes something more: a self-aware, tragic entity, almost worthy of the adulation heaped upon him by subsequent generations.

In Lincoln, we see a somewhat coarse Midwestern lawyer who uses folksy, aphorismic anecdotes to disarm his opponents. His two main Republican rivals, imperial-minded William Seward and abolitionist Salmon P. Chase, initially regard the new president as weak and incompetent, and readily accept cabinet posts with stratagems for advancing their own agendas. In the course of Lincoln's first term, both are cleverly routed by politic jujitsu and sublimated to Old Abe's sole objective: preservation of the Union.

It remains a mystery to Lincoln's contemporaries (as well as Vidal and his readers) why the single-minded president valued so much his almost metaphysical "Union." And as his horrific war progresses (and it is his war, undertaken and sustained almost by his will alone), Vidal's protagonist suffers a moral consumption and the gradual realization that his ultimate fate will be martyrdom. We know that Lincoln suffered ailments (chronic insomnia and gastronomical difficulties among them), domestic tragedies, political scandals and betrayals, and Vidal vividly depicts the presidency's toll on the man. Near the end of the war, sitting in Jefferson Davis' chair in captured Richmond, the demoralized president realizes that he has "no justice, or anything else now. It is fate that guides us all—and necessity." It becomes apparent that Lincoln's sole objective—a united America, with or without slavery—was one to which he would sacrifice himself. Regardless of our final estimation of Lincoln's single purpose, it must be recognized that he had the resolve to effect history as few individuals ever have.

In the introduction to the Modern Library edition, Vidal points out the difficulty the country has had in coming to terms with the man who, in salvaging the United States, reshaped it; the man whose biography is "constantly being altered by each American generation on the ground that, if Lincoln is not 'politically correct,' neither is the nation." With the powers of fiction, Vidal has allowed us to see the tragic greatness of our "American Bismarck," while still acknowledging the flaws of the times that shaped him—many of which remain our own.

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