NEW YORK – Gore Vidal, who died at the end of July, was one writer whose essays I began to read years ago. I then moved on to his novels, though I saw one of his more famous Broadway plays, “The Best Man,” only recently for the first time.
Vidal was an outstanding historical novelist, with an astute sense of politics. His remarkable lineage may have had a good deal to do with this. Starting with his maternal grandfather, Thomas Gore, who represented Oklahoma as senator, he had, among his ancestors, Aaron Burr (Thomas Jefferson’s vice president), who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, in 1804.
More recently, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and George W. Bush are his distant cousins. Jacqueline Kennedy was his maternal stepfather’s stepdaughter.
I do not remember whether the first historical novel of his I read was “Burr” or “Lincoln,” but since the United States is now celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, let me look at the controversy “Lincoln” provoked.
“Lincoln” (1984) begins with the President-elect Abraham Lincoln arriving, at six in the morning of Feb. 23, 1861, in the “squalid main depot of Washington City, capital of the thirty-four United States that were now in the process of disuniting.” It ends with John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, at a little past 10, in the evening of April 14, 1865.
The novel has an epilogue of sorts. It is now Jan. 1, 1867. Lincoln’s former private secretary, John Hay, is in Napoleon III’s court as secretary of the U.S. legation in Paris. There, Charles Schuyler, an American historian who has been away from his country since the Van Buren days — one of the handful of fictional characters in the novel, Vidal notes in his Afterword — asks Hay how he assesses his assassinated boss.
Hay says he rates Lincoln “above” George Washington. Why?
Lincoln had “a far greater and more difficult task than” the founding-father-cum-president ever had, Hay replies.
“You see, the Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union. But Lincoln said no. … Now, that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won. So he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image.”
That is, the emancipation was not Lincoln’s primary achievement. For him, the preservation of the Union was more important. In his oft-quoted letter to Horace Greeley, a fiery abolitionist who bitterly accused him of his tardiness in freeing 20 million slaves, Lincoln wrote:
“If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union.”
Greeley printed this letter on Aug. 22, 1862, in the New York Tribune he edited and published (“The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln,” Random House, 1940).
I have not checked exactly how Greeley responded to Lincoln’s statement, but his position represented the liberal wing of Lincoln’s Republican Party, and its pressure was apparently strong. Lincoln issued on Jan. 1 of the following year the Emancipation Proclamation. But it was lukewarm by any measure. With its lofty legalese, if that is possible, it freed slaves only in states and areas not under Union control, and it came with exemptions.
In this novel, Vidal presented the 16th U.S. president with the Emancipator’s policy from that perspective. This did not sit well with contemporary academic historians.
The first to make the point in an eminent periodical was one of the more esteemed American historians, Comer Vann Woodward. Vidal’s novel “was extravagantly praised by both novelists and historians — a few of the latter at least,” the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale wrote in The New York Review of Books.
“Some of the foremost Lincoln scholars do not share these views. After listing numerous historical blunders and errors in the novel, Richard N. Current, a leading Lincoln biographer, declares that ‘Vidal is wrong on big as well as little matters. He grossly distorts Lincoln’s character and role in history.’”
For what ensued, Vidal’s entertaining arguments — which include his memorable term “scholar-squirrels” — you must turn to his essays on the controversy collected in “Gore Vidal: United States, Essays 1952-1992″ (Random House, 1993).
I note only that Vidal’s original rebuttal, “Gore Vidal’s ‘Lincoln’?” (NYRB, April 28, 1988), is different from the version you find in the massive compilation, and that Woodward’s “reply” is inept and feeble.
Mainly, Vidal exposed academics shifting their views according to the fashions of the times. Following the culmination of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, any view that Abraham Lincoln’s “paramount object” was not emancipation no longer applied.
Though Vidal focused on Richard Current (“Lincoln Nobody Knows,” 1963) and a few other scholars, he put down Woodward himself as “a Southerner (who) noticed, many years ago, that blacks were people.” “It is my radical view,” Vidal wrote, “that Americans are now sufficiently mature to be shown a Lincoln as close to the original as it is possible for us so much later in time to get.”
He was wrong.
Lincoln regarded slavery as “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” he told the delegation of Negroes he invited to the White House, on Aug. 14, 1862. He also said it was “a fact” that “your race” and “the white race” are incompatible. “The aspirations of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free,” but for Negroes that is obviously not possible “on this broad continent.” So, “Go where you are treated the best.”
Lincoln’s thinking was the same as that of the American Colonization Society that established Liberia, in 1820. Historical assessments change with the times. With the Civil War, I most clearly noticed this following “Glory,” the 1989 film that made Denzel Washington famous. It depicted the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry.
You can track the shift in the treatment of the first black army unit in the war, for example, from Bruce Catton’s four-volume account of the Civil War, “Terrible Swift Sword” (1963) and Samuel Eliot Morison’s three-volume “The Oxford History of the American People” (1965), to James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988).
In 1990, Joseph Glatthaar devoted a whole book to the role of blacks in the war in “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.”
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” will appear this fall.