It seems to me that we are always becoming something other than who we are. Sometimes our transformations are infinitesimal, unnoticeable, unremarkable; sometimes they are large, upsetting, dramatic, and bold–to ourselves and others.
Abraham Lincoln, like so many ordinary-people-made-extraordinary by the circumstances into which they came and the multiple actions they and others took, became different things to different people—just as you who are reading this are becoming different things to different people.
In the complex, public, and private, mix-of-things during mid-nineteenth century America, Lincoln grew–and continues to grow (as our understanding of the ‘past’ and people in the past is shaped by what we’ve done since and do now).
We know of Lincoln’s political development from historical works, such as Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which documents Lincoln’s transformation in part through the pressures (viz. leadership) of African Americans who pressed him to move in the direction of Emancipation.
While the larger contours of Lincoln’s political development from his earliest to final days are generally known–some, like the historian Paul Finkelman, might argue that Lincoln’s anti-slavery sentiments were always there but were simply revealed over time–the subjectivity of his transformations are less known (he did not keep a personal diary of his reflections). In other words, the ways in which he thought about the things he was creating and going through, the emotional part of his life, are less known from what documentary evidence exists. This is where novels–here, historical fiction–help.
Even as novels entertain and help us create other spaces and emotions, some familiar, others less so, they also have a functional purpose that can, I believe, help us all better understand not necessarily them, but us. In novels, where expressed subjectivity is essential, the voices of authors come through, becoming revealed with turns of phrases, pages, and the intimate subjects that they choose to explore.
This is what we have in what is an exquisitely written fictional account of Lincoln (in the first person) over the course of three and a half decades: I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War by Jerome Charyn, a master wordsmith, a poet of prose.
As I wrote in an earlier post for P4P, the line between History (i.e. Fact) and Fiction, is often not clear; I argue that the lines between each genre are perhaps best understood as blurred–that to think of a sharp distinction between one and the other takes away from what each gives us.
Charyn’s novel is a literary feast, giving us insight (perhaps, or perhaps not) into Lincoln’s subjective experience of surviving and becoming. As much as it is about Lincoln, it is about the author, but by extension, by our reading it, it is about us.