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.

Gore Vidal merely hints at all this fervour. Lincoln’s political associates rationally discuss the future of the defeated Southerners, who will obviously never admit that they had fought and died in the cause of slavery. Lincoln and his thoughtful young secretaries quietly wonder why it is that Lincoln’s adherents in the Army have become so devoted to their President. Walt Whitman, with his idea of ‘adhesive love’, might have offered an explanation: that bearded nurse makes a brief appearance in the novel, and we half-expect him to eulogise the President, but that would be too embarrassing. Lincoln’s grandeur and awesomeness must, for Vidal, be presented more discreetly, more stealthily. He rides to Harper’s Ferry, between huge Ward Hill Lamon and sharp little Pinkerton – ‘Welcome, your Excellency, to the Army of the Potomac!’ is the cry – and then leaves his reluctant bodyguard outside while he visits the enemy prisoners, wounded and angry. He paces eerily between their beds before saying, his trumpet voice muted: ‘I am Abraham Lincoln.’ Then there is a long, wondering sigh, like a rising wind, repeated when their President finishes speaking and asks the prisoners to shake his hand. A man on crutches hobbles towards him and the prisoners begin to weep ... This little story is told with awe, the way stories are told about saints and prophets, or holy kings in Shakespeare – kings like Duncan and Edward the Confessor in Macbeth, Lincoln’s favourite play. Vidal’s novel is largely about the way in which Lincoln became an image of ‘greatness’ to his people.

Among British readers of this patriotic American book the most fortunate will be those who have read little about Lincoln’s career, for they can take the story ‘straight’ without noticing when Vidal adds to or subtracts from earlier interpretations and legends. But even Civil War buffs may derive new ideas from this book, centring as it does on the politicians and civilians of devious, untrustworthy Washington. Readers of my own generation will remember all the pro-democratic propaganda of World War Two, derived from the Gettysburg address, about ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ – not a phrase much admired now by conservative thinkers: nor do our conservatives think much of the idea of a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ since their current theory is that liberty and equality are incompatible.

We in Britain may have derived our notion of Lincoln from John Drinkwater’s play, taught in schools and broadcast on the radio (and we may have taken from Drinkwater some idea of Lincoln’s colleagues, Stanton and Seward, more thoroughly presented now in Vidal’s novel). Even more monarchical in tone was John Buchan’s The Path of the King, that sequence of historical stories about British princes and chieftains culminating in the achievement of their greatest descendant, President Lincoln, who carried in his veins true British blood, blood royal. His humble origins, too, had to be stressed. He was the ‘rail-splitter’ (cutting rails to fence his father’s house) before he was a railroad lawyer. Vidal, wishing to blend the royal and democratic threads, notes that his son was called ‘the Prince of Rails’ and he describes his wife as ‘unmistakably the Republican Queen’. Lincoln tells her: ‘Well, I reckon we are sort of temporary ramshackle sovereigns.’ More boldly, he says, when entering the Capitol: ‘This is not England, where the sovereign may not set foot in the House of Commons. I can wander in and out of the Capitol as I please.’

Most of Lincoln’s colleagues are lawyers, a fact which Vidal regularly stresses, sometimes mockingly. ‘Seward appreciated the honest and open way that Stanton had lied: it was the hallmark of a truly great lawyer, and demonstrated a professional mastery not unlike his own.’ But at other times the lawyerlike discourse invests the story with the majesty of the Law. Lincoln is formally ‘calling forth the militia of the several States of the Union’ and Senator Douglas, ‘ever the sharp lawyer’, picks up his use of the word ‘execution’, exclaiming: ‘You are deliberately invoking your oath, to execute the laws. Am I right? The oath.’ Douglas is shown beginning ‘to understand what Lincoln was doing: he also understood the perils implicit in such a high royal progress to an end that no one on this earth could anticipate or even imagine.’ We can almost hear Douglas sigh the long wondering sigh of allegiance, adherence to the high royal progress.

Readers of Vidal’s less stately novels may be surprised that he can maintain this candidly heroic tone so steadily, among scenes of low life, the humdrum and the dowdy. We might remember The City and the Pillar which he published in 1948. Jim Willard is engaged in a fruitless love affair with a man and a woman, so hopeless that ‘their lives stopped until December when the United States went to war with Japan, and they were once more part of the world’: enlisted in the Army, Jim Willard looks lustfully round the barrack-rooms but takes up with a married man of 40, a history professor, who says: ‘Of course, things were even worse in the Army of the Potomac’ – adding, apologetically: ‘The Civil War.’ Then a sergeant orders Jim and the professor to clean out latrines, ‘during which time Jim learned a great deal about American history and the tyranny of democratic armies’.

The biography at the back of Lincoln presents Vidal first as a serviceman, who ‘wrote his first novel, at the age of 19, while overseas in World War Two’, and then as a serious politician, keen to be elected and counting his votes: ‘As a Democratic candidate for Congress from upstate New York, he received the most votes of any Democrat in a half-century. In California’s 1982 Democratic Primary for US Senate, he polled a half-million votes; and came in second in a field of nine.’ So he has some reason to feel that he understands what it was like to be in the company of Abraham Lincoln, seen both as a vote-counter (a sort of Harold Wilson, amusing the people with jokes, holding his contentious colleagues with tricks and treats) and as a warlord, being turned and turning himself into a graven image for Mount Rushmore, Father Abraham as well as Old Abe.

Many of the events are seen through the eyes of Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, a young man (27 when Lincoln died) who was a skilful and witty writer, cool and not too rhetorical, devoted to Lincoln and, perhaps, more committed to the cause of the Negroes than Lincoln was himself. He was reckless in the pursuit of pleasure, he wrote the Pike County Ballads as well as a life of Lincoln, and became a popular Ambassador to the United Kingdom. It is with Hay that Gore Vidal finds it easiest to identify. At one point Hay is with Lincoln’s former law-partner, Herndon (who also wrote a book about Lincoln). They are in a Washington brothel, and Herndon tells Hay a funny story about the young Lincoln’s dealings with a prostitute, while the President’s secretary, very plausibly, urges him to keep his voice down. Gore Vidal can hardly have got this story from Herndon’s or Hay’s published works, but he assures us in his afterword that he has made use of many diaries and letters. For young Herold, the amateur assassin, Vidal has ‘invented a low life’, since little is known of him until Booth’s conspiracy. This low life is of the Irish saloon variety, with homosexuality in evidence: Walt Whitman’s boyfriend, Pete Doyle, hovers in the wings. There is always a danger of bawdy breaking in and distracting us from the great events. But Gore Vidal checks himself firmly, and the ‘low life’ scenes have their function, both in ‘tea-tabling’ the narrative or bringing us down to earth, and in making Lincoln’s life seem more high.

It is through Hay’s eyes and ears that we witness the speech to commemorate the deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg, with all the inconsequent details. Lincoln was preceded by a famous orator (famous for being famous, according to Lincoln) and this man ‘offered an extended version of Pericles’s commemoration of the Athenian dead. But where Pericles had been very much to the Attic point, Everett was to a myriad of New England points.’ While Everett’s beautiful voice went on and on, like a suite for unaccompanied cello, John Hay was looking over the battlefield, sickened by the smell of decomposing flesh intermingled with the odour of the crowd. Then Ward Hill Lamon stood up and bellowed: ‘The President of the United States!’ Hay becomes attentive and admiring, observes the crowd’s reaction and hears Lincoln murmur afterwards: ‘Well, that fell on them like a wet blanket.’ Hay had been worrying over the President’s ghastly colour: but his hand did not tremble and his voice was as a trumpet over the field of Gettysburg. ‘Fourscore and seven years ago’, he began, plunging straight into his subject.

That was not very long ago, certainly not for a man of Lincoln’s age. He was engaged in conserving a quite recent institution, ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’. British readers will remember that George Orwell, some eighty years later, suggested in his blunt, offensive way that Americans ought to add to this proposition: ‘not counting niggers’. It would be quite wrong, of course, to use Orwell’s sarcasm against Lincoln: there is no doubt that the President always wanted to redeem his black fellow citizens from slavery. But he had never been keen to resort to bloodshed for this purpose, and he seems not to have found it easy to regard the blacks as his equals. Vidal describes his conversation with ‘a number of Negro leaders’ at a meeting arranged by John Hay. It is quite embarrassing. The black men wanted to ally themselves with Lincoln, as fellow citizens: but the President (it seemed to John Hay) ‘wanted the Negroes freed, and he wanted them out of North America’. He had started with an unusually strong commitment to the establishment of his new nation – almost like a modern statesman committed to the quite recent frontiers of, say, Nigeria, Malaysia or Iraq, finding any secession intolerable. Then he justified his determination on grounds of high principle, so that those frontiers would be seen as worth fighting for. The anti-slavery enthusiasts, who had distrusted him, began to rally to him, to build him up as their figurehead. The troops and the common people began to honour him as their prince and captain – and perhaps as their chess-king who must always be protected. This, according to Vidal’s story, is the way Lincoln became a great man. The same pattern may be seen, in miniature perhaps, all over the world.

And then, what happened to the Old South? After these high matters, British readers may not be quite so ready to laugh at the farcical communities of Stars and Bars, in the defeated land of Robert E. Lee, where Sherman marched so ruthlessly. William Boyd’s title will suggest Hollywood to some – but a Virginian, seeing me carrying it about, sighed ‘Ah, the old flag’ and became unusually pensive. He began telling me about the Civil War, beginning: ‘The first thing you have to understand is that Lincoln was a railroad lawyer.’ It was the thought of the Stars and Bars, the old Confederate flag, that made him so serious. But in William Boyd’s comic novel it flaps in desolation over dowdy eating-houses offering drive-thru burgers, made of squirrels or weasels, in places which seem always to have been miles from anywhere: the telephone wires (supposes the English visitor, the comic hero) must have been cut down by Indians to make ornaments.

This man, Henderson, is in an agreeable tradition of silly-ass Englishmen in America, started unintentionally by Anthony Trollope – who set out for the United States six months after Lincoln’s Inauguration. He supported Lincoln, incidentally, and declared Buchanan to be a traitor; but after dealing with high matters Trollope does present himself as rather a chump, slightly absurd in his efforts to distinguish himself from the natives, tempted to put them down. Not many novels in this tradition would positively encourage an Englishman to visit the States – only Eric Linklater’s Juan in America springs to mind, for Juan appreciated it and did very well there. Poor Henderson in Stars and Bars does pretty badly, being frightened to death half the time, most risibly. Henderson is really keen to become American in style and character, not shy – or at least not shy the way the British are. He has found an instructor to teach him ‘zencing’, fencing according to Zen principles. He can revert to British haughty talk when threatened. Accused of being hostile by an American colleague (he works for a New York picture-dealer), he can reply: ‘Hostel? As in Youth Hostel?’ Even in Manhattan, though, where he has so many advantages, he betrays a tendency to panic – running madly away from kindly fellows whom he supposes to be ‘muggers’. When he is sent to the Deep South – where life seems to be really dangerous, lawless and unmapped, like a Hollywood movie about hillbillies – Henderson is quite out of his depth. Yet he picks up, we even begin to admire his nerve, partly because he is no longer struggling with American customs and standards. There are no standards here, in this Deep South nightmare, no recognisable customs.

When he first arrives at the ramshackle house of the rich old man who wants to sell his pictures, it looks as if he is being received with Old Southern courtesy. A big handsome man with an embroidered denim suit and ‘a scalloped warlock’s beard’ takes Henderson aside and civilly inquires: ‘Excuse me asking, sir, but am I right in thinking you are the man from the New York auctioneers which wants my Daddy’s paintings?’ Confirmed in his supposition, he continues, smiling and reasonable: ‘I think, to be fair, that I should inform you of a certain fact which has a bearing on your business. That if you don’t get your fuckin’ ass out of this house by noon tomorrow I’m gonna bust yo’ fuckin’ head with it.’ The threat is genuine. The bearded man has arranged to sell the paintings to some gangsters whose main job is mass-producing abstract pictures in Jackson Pollock’s style. The gangsters arrive – and very terrible they are too. Henderson needs the protection of his noble black zencing-master. But he cannot get away. Another mad Southerner has taken his car to pieces – and has decided to marry the undersized 14-year-old girl whom Henderson is supposed to be protecting. Country-and-Western songs, morbidly plaintive, assail his shy British ears.

This very funny novel will not serve as a tourist’s travel brochure, except perhaps for those who are tempted by ‘adventure holidays’. It does, however (like William Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa), offer some pretty sharp observations about the way the British are inclined to behave, when abroad, and may persuade some of us to try and improve our behaviour. Perhaps too, for all its comic exaggeration, it does tell some truth about the sadness of the South, still putting out the melancholy flag of defeat, the Stars and Bars.