Much has been made of Abraham Lincoln’s political genius. He is often painted as a savant, manipulating both his opponents and allies to align with his will as he navigated the treacherous years of the American Civil War.
Gore Vidal brings this to life in a continuation of his Narratives of Empire series. Although not the second book in publication order, it is the second one in sequence, with one loose connection to the first (no spoilers although Vidal clearly wants to thread the story). Burr, one of my favorite reads of last year, was almost a comedy of manners mirror image of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s contemporary hit musical Hamilton. It mocked the Founding Father myths with aplomb while keeping the mystery around its eponymous character in shroud.
Lincoln never gives us Abe Lincoln’s perspective, and like Burr, I think the book is better for it. Rather, it does so around the eyes of those who surround him and plot against him. Vidal allows Lincoln’s maneuvering to flow without making him a saint or martyr. He comes off as a racist, as a compromiser, as someone who perhaps worships the existence of the United States more than the much more important moral cause of abolition. Moreover, he comes off as human, a difficult thing to do, and not something I think Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln managed all that well, even though I loved that movie.
There is a sublime moment through the lens of either Seward or Chase, I can’t remember (I think the former), where the character realizes that through Lincoln’s “Honest Abe” facade was a Machiavellian type all along. Vidal grasps how loosely the United States was organized at the time of Civil War and how many elites looked east to Europe at their monarchs and tyrants with envy. And yet, Lincoln slipped in and out of history just in time for the country’s most crucial hour.
I liked this slightly less than Burr. There’s a lot of redundancy, the characters don’t really grow, and I think about 10-15% could be edited out. But it’s still a fun, engaging book and I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.