SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW
‘I Am Abraham,’ by Jerome Charyn
By RICHARD BROOKHISER FEB. 21, 2014
No president has written as well as Abraham Lincoln. He could thrill, reason, prophesy, mourn and crack jokes. Who wouldn’t want to read a book in his own words — all the more enticing if it scanted the political and administrative minutiae that fill his collected works and gave us a window into his inner life?
Even if Lincoln hadn’t been murdered, he would never have written such a book. For an often garrulous man, he was notoriously tight-lipped about anything he didn’t want to say in a proclamation or from a podium. Biographers and historians have labored to fill the gaps. Jerome Charyn takes the approach of fiction.
“I Am Abraham” is an interior monologue, with Lincoln surveying his own life. Charyn’s novel follows the course of known events from 1831, when Lincoln left his father and stepmother and struck out on his own, until April 1865, when he visited Richmond, Va., conquered capital of the Confederacy. Only one character of any consequence — a female Pinkerton agent — is entirely invented, and Charyn assures us in an author’s note that Pinkerton did use women agents.
Charyn’s best touch is Lincoln’s voice: thoughtful, observant and droll, good for the long narrative haul. Its ground bass is Kentucky rube. Lincoln says “the-ay-ter” and seems amused that he continues to say so even though he has become president of the United States. He varies this tone with echoes of the Bible, poetry and speeches from the the-ay-ter. (He describes his wife, Mary, retreating after one of their fights “into her bedroom in the crepe of a demented queen.”)
Readers may be surprised by how lewd this Lincoln can be. Do you want a recollection of the first time he felt a woman’s breasts? Of the first time he had intercourse? It’s all here. But the historical Lincoln’s arsenal of jokes did include obscene ones. Readers may also be struck by how lurid early-19th-century America seems through his eyes. His description of the Clary’s Grove Boys, a posse of toughs who confronted, then befriended him after he first moved to Illinois, reads like Midwest magic realism. “Their eyes were painted black, their noses masked with bits of red cloth, making them look sinister as ghouls; they had spikes in their arms and straw hats with missing crowns and rough, rawhide boots; their single ornament was a neckerchief with yellow polka dots that flashed in the sun and could be observed a quarter-mile away.”
Charyn’s Lincoln is a man of sorrows. Presiding over the Civil War would do that to anybody, but here the sorrows are traced back to an unsympathetic father and to the death of Ann Rutledge, his first sweetheart. Today we would call Lincoln depressed and give him pills. The man himself calls his bouts of gloom “unholies” and “the hypo” (from hypochondriasis) and just tries to ride them out.
Some famous men appear in this Lincoln’s thoughts — Stephen Douglas, George McClellan, Ulysses Grant — but the main figures in “I Am Abraham” are family. Mary Lincoln is the Kentucky belle who charms and arouses him even after her fragile personality develops irreparable cracks. His eldest son, Robert, understands his mother and soothes her, but wants her committed. His youngest son, Tad, is an undisciplined imp who has a speech impediment, yet alone of the family accompanies his father in the book’s final set piece, the apocalyptic visit to Richmond.
What’s missing? Lincoln seems to think hardly at all about his writing. If that were true, then he would have been the first and only writer in history to do so. Still less credible is the near absence of politics. Charyn presents Lincoln as stumbling into high office, guided by handlers and prodded by Mary. Yet William Herndon, his law partner, testified that his ambition was “a little engine that knew no rest.” Politicians are even more absorbed in their work than writers, recalling every hand they’ve shaken, every back they’ve stabbed. A real transcript of Lincoln’s thoughts would read a lot like Machiavelli (if he were moral) or the Sunday morning talk shows (if they were intelligent).
Where, finally, is God? Lincoln thought about him, off and on, all his adult life, more and more as the war ground on. A month before Charyn’s conclusion, he delivered an Inaugural Address that was indistinguishable from a sermon. But God is pretty much M.I.A. here. Charyn’s Lincoln, like the historical one, does feel the depth of the wound slavery leaves on America. Next year, the first black president will preside over the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, yet demagogues, policy nerds and idealists still pick at the scab of race. It is our national “hypo.”
I AM ABRAHAM
A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War
By Jerome Charyn
Richard Brookhiser’s most recent book is “James Madison.”