Review: I Am Abraham, by Jerome Charyn
Liveright/Norton, 2014. 456 pp. $27.
What an extraordinary, ambitious idea, to narrate a novel in Abraham Lincoln’s first-person voice. But, as with its protagonist, I Am Abraham is not ordinary. And if you think you know this man–the Rail Splitter, Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, and so on–here’s a different portrait, the man who never appeared before Matthew Brady’s camera. Or, rather, it’s the man while he’s away from the chair in which Brady posed him.
I Am Abraham is the private Lincoln: full of self-doubt, compassion, deep melancholy, a sense of social inferiority, a parallel dislike of social pretension, an iron will that grew with political maturity but which he couldn’t exert at home, and, maybe surprisingly, lust. Schoolchildren may learn about poor Ann Rutledge, the young woman whose premature death left him heartbroken; I remember that. But we sure didn’t hear what Jerome Charyn has Mr. Lincoln remark, that she was “the most voluptuous gal in Sangamon County,” courted by every man who didn’t already have one foot in the grave, and even some who did. Nor did we hear about the effect that young Mary Todd, the aristocratic Kentucky belle, had on the somewhat older country lawyer:
She was like a quake of raw energy and some kind of sun goddess, and I was quickened whenever I was in her orbit. Sometimes I’d hold her hand, and I could feel an electric spurt. Mary herself said that the two of us had ‘lovers’ eyes.’ I still felt ungainly around her, like some gigantic frog with warts on his face.
It was Mary, Charyn asserts, who saw Lincoln’s potential, and urged him to enter national politics. Without her support and encouragement, he’d have never become anything more than the itinerant horseback lawyer, while she stayed at home with the children. But she had political skills too, which she longed to use, and told him early in their courtship that she intended to be the First Lady, or, as they called it in those days, Mrs. President. However, once her husband became politically powerful, he excluded her from politics, which brought about a split between them. Both lived close to the edge of mental disturbance–depression, in his case, and acute paranoia, in hers. The White House itself was a house divided.
Readers expecting watersheds of history will be disappointed. The Emancipation Proclamation takes up maybe a page, and the visit to Gettysburg, to which Charyn devotes a chapter, moved me, but not in the you-are-there way. Rather, the history here is more personal, as with stump speeches, everyday political confrontations, and the debates against Stephen Douglas–in other words, anything that shows how Lincoln came to form his principles:
That vile skunk and piss-pot, Chief Justice Taney, had dynamited us all with the Dred Scott Decision–negroes weren’t included in the Constitution, he declared. . . It didn’t matter if [Scott] talked like a duke and read the Bible better than white folks. He wasn’t a human being. I couldn’t pirouette around Dred Scott and palaver about the virtues of the Republican Party. I couldn’t pussyfoot. Or we’d all be pissing in the wind.
Of the other characters, my favorites were Robert Lincoln, the eldest son (and Mary’s darling), and two Union generals, McClellan and Grant. But there’s also the language, which combines Lincoln’s actual words, the patterns of Shakespearean and Biblical phrasing he loved, and a voice of curiosity, self-doubt, and moral questioning that reminded me of Huck Finn, my favorite literary character. Sure enough, in an afterword, Charyn says that he had Huck Finn in mind.
I highly recommend I Am Abraham. Even though you know what happens, it’s a great story, national and personal.
Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.