When Gore Vidal wrote Lincoln, he blurred the lines between fiction and history. The story begins as Lincoln arrives in Washington and ends after his assassination. Lincoln is portrayed as a three dimensional human being through the eyes of those around him: his friends, family, rivals, and those who plot to kill him.
Threats to Lincoln’s life began before he became President and he actually had to come to Washington secretly. At first members of his cabinet questioned his intelligence and scorn him but eventually many come to nearly worship him. One of the major characters in the book is Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, who becomes one of his closest confidantes over the course of his Presidency. Hay, a great admirer who grows to love the President, goes on to become Secretary of State himself one day. The story gives the insiders view on the running of the country during the Civil War; from the choice of generals, to the Battle at Gettysburg, to the writng of the Emancipation Proclamation and the challenges of reelection. Vidal shows us the behind the scenes controversies and the political machinations of the many Washington insiders.
Vidal also shows us a personal side of Lincoln, a man who deeply loved his wife, yet saw her weaknesses and possible mental difficulties. Her temper, her sudden and severe headaches, and her compulsive spending were symptoms of both an internal instability as well as a reaction to the tensions of being the First Lady during the Civil War. Many people do not realize, that most of Mary Lincoln’s immediate family fought for the South. In dramatizing this aspect of Lincoln’s story, Vidal shows the pain that wracked thousands of American families during that agonizing war. The loss of their son Tad also brings both Lincoln and Mary to the brink of dispair. Lincoln’s premonitions of death, Mary’s fears of his death, and his many close calls of death (he once had a bullet go through his hat) foreshadow the actual assassination.
Vidal does not merely describe the assassination, he traces the lives of the major participants in the assasination throughtout the war. He focuses this plot line on David Herold, a pharmacy clerk who is drawn into the assassination by his desire for fame and his friendship with John Wilkes Boothe. Lincoln’s assassination is tragic for both Lincon’s family and friends as well as the country.
The story ends in a scene two years later. John Hay has been made an ambassador and sent to France. When questioned about where he would place Lincoln among the Presidents of our country Hay replied he would place Lincoln first. “Above Washington?” was the somewhat startled reply. Hay explained that he felt Lincoln’s job was more difficult, “he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country and all of it in his image.” Lincoln had changed the country from a union of separate states into a nation. In presenting Lincoln’s story in fiction where he could recreate not “what was done and said” because we do not have all the facts of every conversation, but by creating “what might have been said” from the research on what we do know, Vidal in some ways gives us a more realistic picture of Lincoln’s life than a dry recitiation of the facts as they are known. After all, life is made up of conversations, relationships, and events; not merely the facts.