Lincoln (1984)

by Gore Vidal

Lincoln is the centerpiece of Gore Vidal's series of American history novels. It takes place during only four years of Abraham Lincoln's life, the four turbulent years when as president he waged the Civil War to keep the union together.

Instead of conjecturing about Lincoln's every thought, Vidal employs the shifting points of view of Lincoln's supporters, rivals, and enemies, including his young personal secretary, John Hay; the mentally ill Mary Todd Lincoln; cabinet members William Seward and Salmon P. Chase; and a drugstore clerk who eventually helps John Wilkes Booth carry out his assassination plot.

In portraying perhaps our greatest president, Vidal balances the public figure with the private man who copes with his wife's capricious behavior and the death of their son Willie. Lincoln agonizes over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers' lives being lost, but he is also a crafty politician, willing to suspend habeas corpus to serve his purposes. His cause is preserving the union, not abolition, and he frees the slaves only when that's expedient. The complexity of the character Vidal depicts makes Lincoln intensely human and sympathetic, and by the time the doomed Lincoln enters the Ford Theater at the end of the nearly 700-page book, readers may well be shedding tears. 

Lincoln has been subject to the same question as all historical fiction: How is the reader to know what's fact and what's invented? In an afterward, Vidal tells us what characters are fictional and where he tinkered with historical fact. Lincoln, which was reviewed for Vidal by Lincoln historian David Herbert Donald, is generally praised for staying close to the line of authenticity.


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