Our greatest president has eluded our greatest — and almost all of our better-than-average — novelists. On this list of Lincoln in American fiction drawn up for the Illinois Humanities Council, only Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (1951), in which Lincoln is a legendary presence rather than an active character, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), about a young couple who shared the President’s box at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, stand out.
The difficulty with representing Lincoln in fiction is pretty much the same as the difficulty facing the young novelist who wrote a pretty silly novel about Henry David Thoreau a couple of years ago. “Even if his voice were not so distinctive,” as I put it then, “the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of [him] playing in the ear.” No one could hope to duplicate Lincoln’s unmistakable prose style, and would sound foolish if he tried.
Rereading him this morning, I was struck by something I had never known before. In April 1864, Lincoln believed it “exceedingly probable” that he would be defeated for reelection. In such an event, he wrote in a memorandum to himself, “it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” In public, he assured his fellow citizens that, despite rumblings to the contrary, the November election would not be cancelled or postponed. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said in October. “I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” And if beaten in November, he would surrender the office of the presidency:
This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.
When, despite his fears, he was reelected over George B. McClellan with 55 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln reflected that the “strife of the election” had been good for the nation:
It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party [to the war], he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.
Forget American fiction! It is difficult to imagine a “living, brave, patriotic man” — a public man — who could get away with such talk in the 21st century. We no longer expect much from our public men except self-interest in the pursuit of power. When we hear what is “due to the people,” we hear little more than a voluble justification for self-interest. That a man would really believe, as Lincoln confided to a correspondent, that “in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union” — that he really would be willing to sacrifice almost anything, as Lincoln phrased it repeatedly throughout 1864, to make sure that the same liberties he enjoyed were preserved for his children and his children’s children to enjoy — is inconceivable to us. Lincoln is not only missing from our fiction. He is missing from our moral imagination.