This is our second installment of Reading Group Guide from I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War.
How important was it to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps and spend time in the places he visited?
I thought my trips to Gettysburg and Richmond helped enrich the book–to see the landscape through Lincoln’s eyes. What disconcerted me the most was Jefferson Davis’ nursery in the Rebel White House. The nursery was right next to his office, and one could imagine Davis peeking in at his own children as he sent more and more soldiers off to die.
Where did Lincoln’s language come from?
Lincoln was unschooled. His mother, father and stepmother were illiterate—his father refused to allow him to read and even threw his books into the fire. And yet he understood from a very early age the power of words, and his need to define himself through language. Where did the power of his great speeches come from? No other president ever wrote with the same music and eloquence and sadness. He was literally a man who redefined himself with every speech, with every letter, with every gesture. This is one reason why he fell in love with Shakespeare. He could impose himself on Shakespeare’s great heroes and villains: Falstaff, Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth. Because he himself was Shakespearean, as Edmund Wilson suggests in Patriotic Gore, he imposed himself upon the nation as a poet.
Why didn’t you end the novel with Lincoln’s assassination?
I decided to do the opposite—to begin the novel with Lincoln’s assassination and watch as he dreamt his way through his life like a ricocheting bullet moments before he died. I didn’t want to end the novel at Ford’s Theatre. I felt that Lincoln had really died long before he was actually shot. Sending boys off to war again and again and again, knowing that the only way he could really win the war was to keep hurting troops onto the battlefield–his constant gambling with death destroyed him. The man who wrote the Gettysburg address was writing his own epitaph. And that’s why the address has such power and poetry.
Why did you decided to end the book in Richmond?
I thought that Lincoln’s arrival in Richmond was the most important day of his life. The Rebels has just scattered, Jeff Davis had run off with all his papers and his secretaries. There were still sharpshooters lying around when Lincoln decided to go to Richmond with his son Tad on his twelfth birthday. He didn’t want to arrive as a conqueror, but as someone who could unite the country. There were no welcoming parties. Southerners hid in their houses and heaped scorn on him. The slaves of Richmond came out to greet him and he arrived at the Rebel White House with these new, strange bodyguards. It was the most heroic act of his life.