Royal Americans

D.A.N. Jones

  • Lincoln by Gore Vidal
    Heinemann, 657 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 434 83077 1
  • Stars and Bars by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 255 pp, £8.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 241 11343 1

Six o’clock on a cold February morning. Three suspicious characters step warily from a train at a rundown American railway depot. The tallest, a man of 52, has a slouch hat pulled down over his eyes, so that other passengers can see nothing of his face except for a strong nose and high yellow cheekbones above his upturned coat-collar: they cannot even see the newly-grown black beard of this wanted man, looking now so different from his pictures on the walls and hoardings, pictures that make him a target for killers. This is Abraham Lincoln, the newly-elected President, come to Washington to take over from Buchanan and become a warlord.

The little sharp-eyed man at Lincoln’s flank, with a derringer bulging in his pocket, is a detective called Pinkerton. The hulking young bodyguard with two conspicuous guns is Ward Hill Lamon, who proves to be almost as formidable an adherent as Joab was to King David of Israel. There had been a plot to kill Lincoln at Baltimore: that is why the new President has ‘snuck in like some old chicken thief’ – to use the words of one of his enemies, the wretched Herold, a youth working in a chemist’s shop and hanging around with ‘the wild boys’ of Washington, all Southerners calling themselves Southrons. ‘It was the plug-uglies, I guess, that made him sneak through Baltimore,’ Herold tells his associates, admiring those plug-uglies. Herold is certain that the new President can still be assassinated, just before he takes the oath of office, ‘by two of the wild boys, even now at target practice across the river in Alexandria, Virginia’. Later, young Herold will be found trying to poison Lincoln while making up his ‘blue mass’, a medicine the President took for his constipation. But most readers, of course, will already know that Lincoln has four more years to live before he is shot by Herold’s friend, John Wilkes Booth, the most notorious of all those Americans who have sought to win fame by killing heroes and idols.

In this urgent manner, blending the legendary and the humdrum, Gore Vidal introduces his story, like a 20th-century version of a Greek tragedy about a doomed prince, a king who must be killed. It is like a Greek tragedy partly because we already know how Lincoln was to die: the style is 20th-century partly because it is post-Lincoln and therefore influenced by that master of English and American prose. Lincoln’s contribution to the purification of the language has been persuasively discussed by Edmund Wilson: he inspired in others a similar ‘lucidity, precision and terseness’, a better rhetoric, a ‘language of responsibility’. Wilson’s discussion occurs in his study of the literature of the American Civil War, Patriotic Gore, a book which Gore Vidal can scarcely have failed to have read – and to which, I think, he is indebted. It must be hard to invent dialogue in a historical novel for a character like Lincoln whose style is both excellent and well-known: but whatever Vidal has invented for his Lincoln rings well and chimes with the recognisable quotations from the real-life Lincoln.

Vidal, sometimes an extravagant and provocative writer, is curbed by his subject-matter here. Almost like Lincoln himself, he seems to want the political and religious passions to be reined back, the natural feelings of belligerence and even fanaticism to be calmed by cool reason and down-to-earth witticisms: he notices Lincoln’s almost physical need for laughter. In his self-restraint, Gore Vidal does not even make a great scene of the killing. The rage of Lincoln’s adherents has been vividly described by Walt Whitman, with the cry of ‘Murder!’ ringing through the playhouse, the white-faced widow shouting in her box, the silly-looking theatregoers rushing on stage: ‘a dense and motley crowd, like some horrible carnival – the actors and actresses all there in their play-costumes and painted faces, with mortal fright showing through the rouge ... In the midst of all this, the soldiers of the President’s guard burst in, they storm the house, through all the tiers, especially the upper ones, inflamed with fury, literally charging the audience with fixed bayonets, muskets and pistols, shouting Clear out! clear out! you sons of –! Such the wild scene ... ’ The sons of perdition had got Lincoln at last. One of Lincoln’s religious acolytes (discovered, among many other zealots, by Edmund Wilson) explained that it was God’s will that Lincoln should be taken from them, since he was too merciful a man to punish the Southern slave-masters as they deserved. The nation was still almost as hot-blooded as old John Brown had been before the war, a cruel terrorist in the cause of liberty, declaring: ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.’ Such the wild sayings.

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