Author Interviews
7:54 am
Sat February 15, 2014

Through The Mind Of A Novelist, Lincoln Shares His Life Story

Originally published on Sun February 16, 2014 8:43 pm

Abraham Lincoln may be the most biographied, analyzed, deified, second-guessed and impersonated figure in U.S. history. He's been seen as Carl Sandburg's mournful prairie genius and Gore Vidal's shrewd railroad lawyer, who knew when to play the rube.

He's been portrayed in comprehensive histories by James McPherson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and hundreds more in the sweeping movies of John Ford and Steven Spielberg.

Now, Jerome Charyn has written a novel that presumes to be told in Lincoln's voice, a kind of fictional autobiography with a mix of Old Testament, Abrahamic prose, pig-slop humor, and glimpses of majesty in a man who was often racked by doubt and guilt. Charyn spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about Lincoln's poetry, depression and fictionalizing a life.


Interview Highlights

On how he decided to add to the crowded field of books about Lincoln
Well, I was having lunch with a critic, Brenda Wineapple, and she made a very startling statement. She said, "The two greatest poets of the 19th century were Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln," and that confounded me. So I went and started reading Lincoln, and when I read about his depression, that made me feel that I could enter into his world, because yes, there's been so much written about him, but never in his voice. Only a crazy man would write a novel in Lincoln's voice.

On the constraints of history in fictionalizing Lincoln's life
Well, the history's a kind of frame and a straightjacket at the same time. You know, you have to deal with the Civil War, you have to deal with ... the love for Mary, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which for me was the most important American document ever written. So you have to stretch that straightjacket and push the fiction inside it. Then you have a kind of explosion, and that's what I wanted to do.

On what brought Abe and Mary Lincoln together
Sex! Very few historians have been willing to see them as sexual creatures, and that's one of the things that was important to me, to really try to explore what was the attraction between this very tall man and this very short woman. Well, you know, she was a kind of a foxy lady. She was quite attractive, and she fell in love with him, and he jilted her, and she waited, and she waited, and she waited, and he came back. That's a great love story.

On the sadness of Mary Lincoln
We have to remember the limits that were imposed on women in the 19th century. She was an educated woman, and what could she do? She could be a school teacher, she could be a housewife, she could be a nurse, or an old maid. And women at that time really were treated like educated cows. They didn't really have a persona of their own, so to my mind, she was a very brave woman.

On Lincoln's ambivalence about slavery and abolitionists
He was frightened of the abolitionists because they caused riots and a great deal of clamor. On the other hand, he wanted to send the slaves to Liberia, but when he realized that this was not possible, great change was with the Emancipation Proclamation. Once he conceived that, and he conceives that alone, without his cabinet — his cabinet didn't want him to present this document — but once he conceives the Emancipation Proclamation, he really is the great artisan of the Civil War, as far as I'm concerned. It's not really necessarily fought on the battlefield, it's fought in Lincoln's mind.

On why we'll never again have a successful politician with depression
...It would come out, there would be some kind of great drama that he's seeing a psychiatrist or whatever it is, but I think this man of eternal sadness could view the world in a way that most of us can't, and I think that allowed him to write what he did and to behave the way he did towards other people. I mean, he was human in a way that most other people aren't ... We will not see the likes of Lincoln again.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Abraham Lincoln may be the most biographied, analyzed, deified, second-guessed, and impersonated figure in U.S. history. He's been seen as Carl Sandburg's mournful prairie genius, Gore Vidal's shrewd railroad lawyer who knew when to play the rube. He's been portrayed in the comprehensive histories of James McPherson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and hundreds more, and the sweeping movies of John Ford and Stephen Spielberg.

Now, Jerome Charyn has written a novel that presumes to be told in Lincoln's voice, a kind of fictional autobiography, with a mix of Old Testament, Abrahamic prose, pig-slop humor, and glimpses of majesty in a man who was also often wracked by doubt and guilt. His new book: "I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War." Jerome Charyn, who published his first novel in 1964, and is the author of acclaimed novels, including "Johnny One-Eye" and "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson," joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

JEROME CHARYN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You write for a living. You must know how many Lincoln books there are out there. What made you think there was room for this one?

CHARYN: Well, I was having lunch with a critic, Brenda Wineapple, and she made a very startling statement. She said the two greatest poets of the 19th century were Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln, and that confounded me. So, I went and started reading "Lincoln," and when I read about his depression, that made me feel that I could enter into his world, because yes, there's been so much written about him, but never in his voice. I mean, only a crazy man would write a novel in Lincoln's voice.

SIMON: So, how did you do it? Because his words are so well known.

CHARYN: Well, it wasn't easy. But when - remember, he had such a poor education, I felt that our backgrounds weren't that different. And therefore I could enter into his psyche in a way, and also his great sadness. And also I suffer from depression, so I felt an immediate intimacy with that. And once I could enter into that world, the music began to flow.

SIMON: How important was getting the history right to you?

CHARYN: Well, the history's a kind of frame and a straightjacket at the same time. You know, you have to deal with the Civil War, you have to deal with all the instance with the love for Mary, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which for me was the most important American document ever written. So, you have to stretch that straightjacket and push the fiction inside it. And then you have a kind of explosion, and that's what I wanted to do.

SIMON: I love the way you write about Mary Lincoln.

CHARYN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Years before children and the success he had as a corporate lawyer and the Civil War and the immense human suffering that in many ways they share in their family and the immense suffering of the war kind of complicated their lives. What brought Abe Lincoln and Mary Lincoln, as we might say high-born, together?

CHARYN: Sex. See, people...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I was hoping you'd say that.

CHARYN: Very few historians have been willing to see them as sexual creatures, and that's one of the things that was important to me, to really try to explore what was the attraction between this very tall man and this very short woman. Well, you know, she was a kind of a foxy lady. I mean, she was quite attractive, and she fell in love with him, and he jilted her, and she waited, and she waited, and she waited, and he came back. That's a great love story.

SIMON: It is. And, of course, because of that you get in touch with their sadness, particularly after the death of their oldest son, Willy, at the height of the Civil War.

CHARYN: Well, she lost two boys - Eddie and Willy, and she would lose Ted after Lincoln died.

SIMON: You can understand why this is a woman who would - I believe to use the phrase you put in Lincoln's mouth - her mind had taken flight to some far sea.

CHARYN: Yes, yes. Well, I mean, we have to remember, I mean, the limits that were imposed on women in the 19th century. And she was an educated woman, and what could she do? She could be a school teacher, she could be a housewife, she could be a nurse, or an old maid. And women at that time really were treated like educated cows. They didn't really have a persona of their own, so to my mind, she was a very brave woman.

SIMON: Lincoln, as you write in this book, was not of one mind about slavery.

CHARYN: No, he was not.

SIMON: I mean, on the one hand, he reviled it. He still dreamt of slaves that he saw shackled together. On the other hand, he thought that the abolitionists didn't do much good for slaves.

CHARYN: No. He was frightened of the abolitionists because they caused riots and a great deal of clamor. On the other hand, he wanted to send the slaves to Liberia, but when he realized that this was not possible, great change was with the Emancipation Proclamation. Once he conceives that, and he conceived that alone, without his cabinet. His cabinet didn't want him to present this document. But once he conceives the Emancipation Proclamation, he really is the great artisan of the Civil War, as far as I'm concerned. It's not really necessarily fought on the battlefield, it's fought in Lincoln's mind.

SIMON: A question your book keeps raising is, is Lincoln depressed? I don't say that in a clinical way.

CHARYN: Right.

SIMON: Some people do. Was he depressed because of the immense suffering he'd seen, because of the immense suffering he understood that he had even unleashed in the Civil War?

CHARYN: Yes, I think there are two ingredients. I think the death of his mother at an early age brought on the depression. But after all the dyings of the Civil War is when he begins to write his great documents. I mean, if you look at the Gettysburg Address, in two pages, you have a, you know, it's a mourning song. I mean, it's one of the most beautiful poems ever written. So, it's the dying around him that really reverberates inside him and makes him a great writer, as far as I'm concerned.

SIMON: Nowadays, could somebody with his propensity for depression successfully run for office?

CHARYN: Probably not. Because it would come out, there would be, you know, some kind of great drama that he's seeing a psychiatrist or whatever it is. But I think this man of eternal sadness could view the world in a way that most of us can't, and I think that allowed him to write, you know, what he did and to behave the way he did towards other people. I mean, he was human in a way that most other people aren't. Don't you feel that, Scott?

SIMON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, particularly people in public life who even though...

CHARYN: We will not see the likes of Lincoln again.

SIMON: Jerome Charyn. His new novel: "I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War." Thanks so much for being with us.

CHARYN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Our theme music was written by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.