And before 2013 ends, the #10 book Every Civil War Buff Ought To Own . . . Gore Vidal’s Lincoln: A Novel

Part of a Series: Books Every Civil War Buff Ought to Own


The main reason this series has taken so long is that I knew there should be a Lincoln biography on the list. Which one, however, is a huge decision. I could go classical with Sandburg’s 3-volume set (referred to as “a good poem, but poor history” by some). Or, I could go with old-school writers like Randall, who is mostly discredited now, but back in the day was The Man. There is Ida Tarbell, as well. She wrote In the Footsteps of the Lincolns when there were still people alive who had known the Lincolns.

Harold Holzer is a natural fit. I use his work almost daily in my research. Matthew Pinsker is a wonderful writer, and sort of quirky. Michael Burlingame holds a place in my Ellsworthian heart for his work with Hay and Nicolay.  It is difficult to argue with anyone that the single best, one-volume biography of Lincoln is Lincoln, by David Donald. Unless, of course, you agree with Doris Kearns Goodwin and prefer the majestic sweep of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.

You can see my dilemma. It is like being in a candy store, a really good candy store. Decisions become impossible, time goes by, and so do deadlines.Box-of-Chocolates

Then I remembered the one book that made me fall in love with the Civil War even more than I already was–Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, published in 1984. It was in this book that I first got a sense of what it might have been like to actually be in Lincoln’s White House, to be awakened in the middle of the night by the stork-legged President in his night shirt, needing to talk over some point he was considering, even at that unseemly hour.

Gore Vidal, ca 1983
Gore Vidal, ca 1983

The noise, the dirt, the camaraderie, the pressure, and the humor of it all comes through in such a personal manner that I find it, even today, irresistible. Although presented as a novel, many major historians reviewed it. David Donald wrote: “It is remarkable how much good history Mr. Vidal has been able to work into his novel. . . sustained my interest right up to the final page.” This is a reaction I share with the late Professor Donald–the book is just good reading all around.

Lincoln & His Secretaries
Lincoln & His Secretaries

My favorite character is not Lincoln, however. It is John Hay, second secretary to the President. He is one of the main narrators, along with young David Surratt, convicted assassination conspirator. Through Hay’s fictional eyes, historical figures such as Salmon Chase and his daughter, Kate, come more alive that ever. The “Hellcat” is presented in all her glory, and Ward Lamon hangs out at the White House on a regular basis, fretting Lincoln about safety issues.

Through John Hay’s words, the President becomes a very real person, a husband, a father, a politician, and a very concerned Commander in Chief. The book centers on Lincoln in the White House, and ends at Lincoln’s death. This is a particularly poignant part of the novel, as John Hay was in the room when Lincoln died, and Vidal has used all available sources to recreate that event. I am moved to tears each time I read this passage.

John Hay at Lincoln's Deathbed
John Hay at Lincoln’s Deathbed
OK--it's EE--I couldn't resist!
OK–it’s EE–I couldn’t resist!

If you read ECW regularly, you will know that I am an Elmer Ellsworth historian. The words of Ellsworth’s best friends, John Hay and George Nicolay, are one of the primary sources I use, and love, most. I am pretty sure that reading this book almost thirty years ago was the source of this interest, this way of looking at history, and a real appreciation of the men and women who lived through the middle of the nineteenth century–that they existed as people first, and then as historical icons.

So, after worrying that choosing Lincoln: A Novel as my pick for best book about Abraham Lincoln would destroy any credibility I might have earned, I chose it anyway. It is a good read, and it rings true. What more can be asked of a fictionalized biography? To any critics, fire away!

A most Happy New Year to all of you, and stay tuned for the best ECW yet!


Please leave a comment and join the discussion!