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Books: Gone with the Winds of War

6 minute read
Paul Gray

LINCOLN by Gore Vidal; Random House; 672 pages; $19.95

In an essay written in 1973, Author Gore Vidal sulfurously surveyed the ten novels then reclining on the New York Times bestseller list. Some of these smash hits were forgettable even then, but Vidal’s remarks about them were sensible and funny enough to survive. He looked askance at the woman who had given her account of the courtship of Joseph and the Virgin Mary: “It is difficult to know what, if anything, she had in mind when she decided to tell the Age-Old Story with nothing new to add.” He deplored Trevanian’s habit, in The Eiger Sanction, of hauling such celebrities as the Burtons and Jackie Onassis into the action: “There is nothing wrong with this if you have a point to make about them. But he has nothing to say.” Vidal twitted Frederick Forsyth for piling facts into “freight-car sentences.” He was kinder to Herman Wouk and The Winds of War, praising the historical research, quoting a description of F.D.R. and announcing: “This is not at all bad, except as prose.”

Somewhere along the way, Vidal seems to have grown weary of his lonely stand against the barbarians. The more he castigated them, the more they praised and purchased his witty and iconoclastic novels. Myra Breckinridge (1968) was supposed to be a poke in the eye to smug notions of sexual identity; it became a bestseller instead. Julian (1964) and Burr (1973) insisted that true heroes of history are villains in the dull popular imagination; millions of people, including dullards, relished this insight. By this time, success dogged Vidal at every turn. If you cannot offend your enemies, why not take it easy and join them? So, here comes Lincoln, a massive package bearing every wretched excess that Vidal so justifiably scorned eleven years ago.

The story of Lincoln’s presidency is not Age Old but hoary enough to call for some originality in its retelling. Vidal’s contribution is to show his hero through the eyes of three associates: Private Secretary John Hay, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Secretary of State William H. Seward. The two Cabinet members spend much time squabbling; Hay frequents a Washington brothel. All three observers are, unfortunately, tongue-tied when it comes to reporting on Honest Abe: “As usual, Hay wondered what the President was thinking; as usual, he did not have the slightest clue. … How, Seward wondered, not for the first time, did this man’s mind work? … Curious, thought Chase, how little anyone really knew about this new President.”

Stuck with a bearded enigma at the center of his tale, Vidal packs the edges with peripheral figures. Nearly everyone who was anyone during the 1860s, from Henry Adams to Walt Whitman, is given a walk-on role. This process extends to some 19th century notables already deceased. Vidal manages to insert the information that Francis Blair, an aged visitor to the Lincoln White House, knew Andrew Jackson.

The compulsion to drop facts overrides stylistic standards that Vidal once championed. He introduces Seward in a “freight-car sentence” far more overburdened than any of Forsyth’s: “Once redhaired, now white-haired, large-nosed, pale-eyed longtime master of the state of New York not to mention of the youthful Republican Party, as well as President-that-might-have-been had Lincoln’s managers not outmaneuvered his managers at the Chicago Convention, William H. Seward was seven years older than his rival the new President, whose hand he now shook, saying in a husky voice, richly seasoned by a lifetime’s addiction to cigar smoke and snuff, ‘You’re every bit as tall as I’d thought you’d be, Mr. Lincoln.'” Characters do not speak to one another but address the historical record. General Irvin McDowell, giving Chase and his daughter a tour of the Army of the Potomac’s encampment, is forced to remark, “Do you realize, Miss Chase, that I am the first American officer ever to command, in the field, an army of 30,000?”

All this would be tolerable, barely, if Vidal had captured a consistent sense of the imagined past. Instead, he offers the never-never land of convenient cliches. Here is a world where statesmen say, “We’ve not heard the end of this,” where people turn “scarlet with anger,” where the price of gold goes “sky-high,” and where the unsuspecting outsider “little knew what fate had in store for him.” Here is the high drama to be found exclusively in ersatz fiction: when Lincoln drums his fingers on a table, the sound is like “the cracking of a whip.” Shocking news provokes commensurate reactions: “The pince-nez fell from his nose onto the table; a lens cracked.”

Perhaps Vidal is simply trying to hasten the total collapse of all U.S. literary standards, an event he has been gleefully announcing for several decades. Maybe he is staging a subtle practical joke, waiting to see how many innocents buy Lincoln and then denouncing them for their poor taste. Worst of all, he might expect this work to be taken seriously. What can be said with certainty is that Lincoln, unlike The Winds of War, is just about all bad, including the prose.

—By Paul Gray

Excerpt

“Mary looked at Lincoln; and wondered what it was that sustained him. She had watched, day by day, as the war whittled him away. He seldom ate or slept or, worst of all, laughed. Then she looked back at the map. ‘This town is significant because of all these roads, isn’t it?’

Stanton looked surprised. He came close to the map and studied it carefully with his small watery eyes. ‘Well, there area lot of roads, yes.’ ‘But look,’ said Mary, suddenly interested. This sort of detail always fascinated her: it was like working closely with a good dressmaker and a complicated pattern. ‘Note,’ she said, ‘the main road here to Baltimore and the one here to Philadelphia; and this one to Harrisburg. Why, this town is at the very center of everything in Pennsylvania.’

‘You know, Mother, you may be right.’ Lincoln also peered at the map. ‘I can’t say that any of us here at the highest command post of all ever noticed anything much except a dot called Gettysburg.’

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