The prodigious Jerome Charyn is at it again. Now almost 77 years old, he continues to publish a book a year, give or take a day or two, and the range of his almost 50 titles is as wide, deep and unpredictable as are Charyn and his apparently limitless interests. “I Am Abraham” brings the number of his works of fiction to almost three dozen, and they share shelf space with a superb multi-volume memoir, a dozen works of nonfiction about everything from Joe DiMaggio to Isaac Babel, and a handful of plays. He is an authority on the movies — he taught the subject for more than a decade at the American University of Paris — and he knows his baseball, as is to be expected of someone who grew up in the Bronx in the DiMaggio years.
It is one of the genuine mysteries of contemporary American literature that so few readers seem to have heard of him, much less read him. He always manages to find a publisher for each new book, and he has a good one this time around in the latest reincarnation of the venerable firm of Liveright. But his name almost never crops up when notable and distinguished writers of postwar America are cited, and I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who said, “Oh, yes!” when I mentioned his name. To my own shame, I neglected to mention him at all in a long piece about American literature I wrote for The Washington Post on the 25th anniversary of (O lost!) Book World. This is a very real injustice, for he is both a serious writer and an immensely approachable one, always witty and readable and — the temptation is to put it in italics — interesting.
Characteristically, of late Charyn has gone off in an entirely different direction. Two years ago he published “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson,” written in the great if enigmatic poet’s voice and taking great liberties with the details of her life, most of which are in any case unknown. The book was condemned by those who couldn’t abide such liberties with the sacred past, and it was praised by those who admired Charyn’s imagination and daring. Now he has taken an even more daring leap, into the mind and heart of the greatest and most beloved of all Americans, Abraham Lincoln. “I Am Abraham” is going to provoke precisely the same responses as did “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” and for precisely the same reason: Without apology or rationalization, it gives us Charyn’s version of the inner Lincoln, and by no means is everyone going to like it.
“I Am Abraham,” Charyn writes in an author’s note, “is a family chronicle, where the fury of war and politics rumble [sic] in the background, while Lincoln does a macabre dance with his generals, feuds with his eldest boy, and tries to contain the furies of his wife. The novel is told entirely in Lincoln’s voice, that strange mix of the vernacular and the formal tones of a man who only had a few months of learning at a ‘blab school’ and essentially had to teach himself. And so we have reverberations of the Bible in his letters and speeches and spoken voice, echoes of Blackstone and Aesop, and the yarns Lincoln heard as a boy.”
As imagined by Charyn, Lincoln’s voice is mainly rustic and informal, with only occasional glimpses of the majestic language the actual Lincoln employed most famously in his Gettysburg Address (which the fictional Lincoln deprecates) and Second Inaugural Address. Charyn’s Lincoln is most succinctly on view in the moments after he first enters the national political arena, with his great speech of February 1860 at the Cooper Union in New York. The audience’s reaction is ecstatic, but Lincoln is unmoved:
“I knew I wasn’t made for these city folks, with their silk scarves and lorgnettes and opera glasses that a general might have used to espy a battlefield a couple of hills away. Bedecked in their silver fox coats, they had such a look of acquisition on their faces, it was as if they could own me with a simple clasp of the hand. I understood how Black Hawk must have felt when he was first trundled from town to town like a peacock in war paint, and folks were startled to hear him palaver in their own tongue and reason as well as they could. So I lit out of there after the very last handclasp with a prominent Manhattan prince.”
Self-mockery is this Lincoln’s trademark — “I was still a failed Congressman with bony kneecaps” — as indeed it was the actual Lincoln’s. In this as in much else, in particular the bouts of depression to which Lincoln was susceptible, Charyn is close enough to the Lincoln we know (or think we know) that few readers are likely to be offended. I confess, though, that Charyn’s depictions of Lincoln’s sexual urges and engagements left me uneasy. This Lincoln dreams of women with their clothes removed, he masturbates, he asks Ann Rutledge to show him her breasts (she does), he longs for relations with Mary, his wife, even when she is at her most difficult. Lincoln was very much a man, and with Mary he produced four sons, two of whom died before he did, so his sexual life is an entirely legitimate area of inquiry for a writer trying to imagine his way into his most intimate life. Into the bargain, I am rarely uncomfortable with such matters, but I fear that in these passages my inner prig may have entered the premises, and I suspect others will have a similar reaction.
On the other hand, Charyn does a number of things well. His account of Lincoln’s rise from rural Illinois to the state legislature to (however briefly) Congress to the celebrated debates with Stephen Douglas and then to the presidency is vivid and true to what history has told us, though with the occasional fictional embellishment. There’s a particularly convincing invention at Baltimore’s Camden Street Station, through which Lincoln actually did pass en route to the White House in 1861. Charyn invents a female Pinkerton agent, based on a real person, who confronts would-be assassins and routs them, earning Lincoln’s admiration and gratitude; it is not the only time she comes to his aid. Charyn is also especially good in his portrait of Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who became Mary Lincoln’s modiste and eventually both her closest confidante in the White House and a second mother to the Lincoln boys; “she was like an irascible sister you loved in spite of the quarrels you had,” this Lincoln says to Mary, “an angel in the attic,” and one believes him.
Then of course there is Mary herself, whom Lincoln loves and desires, although living with her “was like a constant barrage of fire.” Charyn elaborates upon her actual relationship with a scoundrel named Henry Wikoff, the subject of considerable Washington gossip for a while in 1862. Charyn imagines her writing affectionate letters to him, which Wikoff intends to sell to the Confederates before our Pinkerton friend gets on the case. Called on the carpet by her husband, Mary claims she had resented being supplanted as his chief confidante by the secretary of state, William Henry Seward, about which Lincoln muses: “She’d once been the queen of my campaigns. She’d read all my speeches, helped me recite them in front of a mirror, but I locked her out, as she said, didn’t even seek her counsel. And it rubbed her raw. I couldn’t have survived for a moment with Mary as my general. The damn country would have crucified me.”
True enough. There’s much truth in the fiction that is “I Am Abraham,” but one never does lose sight of the central truth that it is, after all, fiction. In the vast literature of Lincolniana, an honorable if somewhat unconventional place will be made for it, a considerably more inviting one than that occupied since 1984 by Gore Vidal’s ponderous, self-important “Lincoln.”
I AM ABRAHAM
A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War
By Jerome Charyn
Liveright. 456 pp. $26.95