Ulysses S. Grant appears with just 100 pages left in I Am Abraham, the fictional memoir of Grant’s boss, the 16th president of the United States.
The delayed arrival of one of the most pivotal figures in the Civil War offers a glimpse of the approach taken in this novel. Here Abraham Lincoln shares his interior monologue while contemplating and recalling his complicated family life, the relentless pressure of holding together the frayed Union during a long, bloody war, and his own doubts and fears.
It works because Jerome Charyn channels Lincoln in impressive fashion. His Lincoln possesses a keen, down-home wit to leaven his depressive moods (“hypo” in the parlance of the time) and writes and speaks in the manner of an aggrieved man responsible for the horrible injuries and deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men and boys.
Already, Charyn’s novel has drawn comparisons with earlier well-received works of Lincolniana. That, of course, is saying something, since the number of Lincoln histories, biographies, and novels is said by some to trail only those written about Jesus Christ.
A brief prologue finds the wizened but victorious Commander-in-Chief in his office in April 1865. His son, Robert, just back from Appomattox, tells of what he witnessed when Grant and Robert E. Lee ended the war in Virginia. Then Lincoln goes to the theater for the evening and a rustle behind him portends his assassination.
And with that, Lincoln picks up his tale in 1831 in Illinois, where, in his early 20s, he plunges into the Sangamon River and nearly dies.
Soon enough, he finds his way to the law and heartbreak, crushed by the death of the woman long described as the future president’s first love: Ann Rutledge. By the time he wins over the Kentucky belle Mary Todd and completes an improbable rise to the presidency, Lincoln remains fiercely smart, savvy, and self-deprecating. Charyn, like Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s superb 2012 movie, manages a feat of ventriloquism to be admired.
Here, Lincoln reflects on his election to the White House:
“I was still a failed Congressman with bony kneecaps. Photographers arrived from everywhere to make me over with a new kind of dazzle – they went at me like voracious warriors. They plucked the hairs from my nostrils, covered my moles with facial powder, but I was the same sad sort in the mirror.”
Watching the war through Lincoln’s eyes can be disconcerting. Generals and aides wander in and out of the White House and the president awaits word on maneuvers from the telegraph office within the army’s Washington headquarters.
Early in the war, Lincoln describes the frustration of meeting with the feckless but dashing General George McClellan. The leader of the Union Army inspires loyalty and awe in his soldiers but drives the president to distraction by dithering and refusing to attack the Confederate army.
Charyn’s novel reveals Lincoln’s character through the president’s constant sorrow (his son Eddie died in 1850, just before his fourth birthday, and another son, Willie, died in 1862 in the White House at age 11), constant demands and pressures of his job and his futile attempts to mollify his wife.
Mary Todd Lincoln dips in and out of mania throughout these pages. She mourns for months on end after Willie’s death. At other times, Mary careens from rage and jealousy toward those near the president – the wives of generals come in for particular scorn – to genteel Southern charm. Lincoln reacts with a mixture of anger, frustration, pity, and bemusement.
Or, as the author has his Lincoln put it, “Then the fits would pass and she was fine – for a little while. And it would start all over, like some seesaw of the fates.”
Still, Charyn hits the high notes, too, from Lincoln calling on “the better angels of our nature” to what he frets is an inadequate address in November 1863 to dedicate the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg. “No one clapped or whistled,” the president recalls.
Lincoln skips a summary of the epic battle at Gettysburg in July 1863 in Charyn’s telling.
Instead, the president reflects on his arrival at the train station months later for his speech.
“The platform of the depot was lined with row after row of relentless coffins — the very last interments before the dedication, I suspect. Diggers would probably work half the night on Cemetery Hill....”
Most of all, Lincoln comes across as human and not some remote giant. Charyn conveys ribald, salty humor (the future president remarks that one Illinois mentor “farted a lot for such a meticulous man”) and a young man’s lust for pretty ladies.
All in all, this is a Lincoln to be admired, to be sure, but also to be savored as he tells the story of his own fascinating life. With that, Jerome Charyn has given Lincoln a most appropriate present for what would have been his 205th birthday this month: rebirth not as a marble memorial but as a three-dimensional human who overcame much to save his nation.
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.