Hagiography is destructive to truth. The worshipful retelling of past lives by advocates who wish to see their subjects purely in terms of what they mean to the writer personally, eliding that which is problematic, troublesome, or simply unpleasant, while occasionally producing fun books for the uncritical, puts up barriers to the most essential element of honest biography, namely the recognition of what is human in all of us.
While that may seem a bit over-the-top to some, consider what happens to certain authors who dare to write candidly about “heroes” with many followers. Often, they themselves become the focus of intense controversy, much of it negative. How dare they, detractors claim, paint a portrait of Exemplary Figure that goes into the foibles, obsessions, character flaws, bad judgments, prejudices, and petty attributes when the significance of Exemplary Figure ought to exempt him (and sometimes her) from any criticism other than the most theoretical or abstract?
(This cuts both ways—many people seem unwilling to learn that Hitler was inordinately fond of little children and loved dogs. Anything that humanizes him in any way, it seems, just gets in the way of how most of us wish to see him—as a monster, pure and simple.)
However one may feel about “disrespecting” historical figures, the fact is that being less than honest about anyone’s humanity makes for bad history and boring prose. The fascinating aspects of certain lives are not what they accomplished but that such altogether human beings accomplished what they did. (An excellent example is George Washington, who in so many ways was a dull, unimaginative man whose main distinction was having the fortune to be in the midst of enormous events that wrought significant change. His reputation, which he cared about almost as much as the issue of independence, has come down to us in such a way as to suggest—inaccurately—that between him and Thomas Jefferson, everything important got done, while in truth his principle genius was in knowing how and when to refuse power. He seemed to understand ramifications almost instinctively. All the rest is ordinary, but becomes extra-ordinary in the light of what he did accomplish.)
Recently there has been a surge in histories and biographies about the Civil War and its players. The Steven Spielberg film Lincoln is up for several Academy Awards. We’re coming up on the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, which is arguably where everything turned around and the changes which started with Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln’s election began to look permanent.
Vidal is exactly the kind of writer to boil the blood of ideologues who want their national heroes as pure as Achilles and reject any hint of more Odyssean qualities.
In a series of novels with the overall title Narratives of Empire, Vidal tore down the idols from their clay pedestals and showed many for the complex, often venal, thoroughly human people they were. While some may quibble at his interpretations (for instance, in Burr, where he portrays Thomas Jefferson in less than exalted terms and even suggests that he might, in the affair of Aaron Burr, gone briefly mad), it is difficult to fault either his scholarship or his grasp of basic human nature. When viewed through the lens of our commonalities rather than the distortions of iconic preconceptions, historical figures become both ordinary and accessible, the former of which is sometimes unwelcome, the latter disquieting.
In Lincoln Vidal begins with the newly-elected 16th president’s arrival in Washington, which was an ignominious event in the early morning hours, alone and unannounced in the company of body guards. We speak today of the incivility of our political discourse, to which Vidal’s portrayal is tonic. The murder plots set in motion to kill Lincoln even before his inauguration are a matter of record, the venom of pro-Southern sympathizers was lethal in its toxicity. Reason had little to do with it. Lincoln, for his part, was stoic, accepting events as they came as simply things to be dealt with.
It’s tempting to see in this picture a fatalist. It’s possible Lincoln possessed such a streak, but it was offset by a fanatic belief in what he saw himself representing. The Union.
We find this conversation odd today—or maybe not, what with all the declarations of intent to secede in the wake of Obama’s re-election, though for most of us such claims likely seem silly, but certainly unlikely to gain traction. But prior to the Civil War, as Shelby Foote has noted, we had a theory of a nation rather than a nation itself. It is perhaps bizarre for us today to hear Robert E. Lee declare that he could not accept command of the Union army because his first loyalty was to his country, meaning Virginia. This was not theoretical. It was so not theoretical that it did serious damage to the Confederacy before the war was over. Supplies held in one state were not shared with others. States Rights overwhelmed any consideration of unity, and in a way this made perfect sense. Were they not after all arguing for the right to be apart?
After the war, theory became established fact. This is what Lincoln held as his guiding principle. He refused for almost all of the war to acknowledge “The Confederacy,” preferring to characterize the rebellion as the action of “certain elements within the southern states.”
Vidal did a superb job of making these distinctions not only clear but informing them with the vitality of Cause. This was not an evening’s conversation over brandy with cigars but life and death.
The drama of Lincoln is almost entirely within Washington, in fact inside the White House. It is the continuous wrestling Lincoln engaged with his cabinet—most of whom thought they could do a better job than him, some of whom thought he had somehow usurped their rightful position, a couple of them feeling it their duty to operate as de facto prime ministers because, in their opinion, Lincoln was a mediocrity—and the remarkable balancing act Lincoln managed to keep not only the cabinet together but ultimately the country. An act which most of those around him misunderstood and undervalued constantly. Yet the steel-spined, dedicated leader emerges on the page when least expected to assert a control that, in retrospect, he never lost.
My appreciation for Lincoln and the Civil War took a long time to coalesce. Growing up, I was taught and accepted that it was about slavery. Ultimately this is both true and inaccurate. Freeing the slaves was a secondary, even tertiary matter for Lincoln. This is difficult sometimes to separate out from the idea that he was dedicated to ending slavery, which is not quite the same thing. He saw the institution as unsupportable in a country pledged to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He admitted that if he could have found a way to preserve the Union and maintain slavery, he would have done so. But a careful survey of his writings reveals Lincoln to believe such a thing impossible. The revisionists who attempt to cast the South in a better light point to the notion of States Rights, that they were fighting to preserve what they saw as their autonomy, and that slavery was not the issue. Again, a survey of the decrees of secession issued by the states rejects this—slavery is in almost every instance the first grievance, that the North sought to abolish it and the South refused to give it up. It is incumbent upon the honest historian to realize that both issues were inextricably bound up together—that the Southern States saw their own identities as dependent upon slavery and certainly the economics bear this out.
Vidal managed the neat trick of not taking sides even while he showed the Southern Cause as hopelessly flawed and the inexorable correctness of Lincoln’s position relentlessly preferable, even as it struggled against more doctrinaire and self-proclaimed moral bases in the North.
Through it all, though, the importance of the novel is in its refusal to see any of these people as other than deeply human—insecure, unsure, vain, stubborn, optimistic, sometimes corrupt, often blind—and in that it makes for a kind of vaccine against the odious process of deification that infests so much of our public regard of famous people in history.
Robert E. Lee has been known as The Marble Man, because his legend overwhelm and almost silenced his reality. Something close to that happens to all those we identify as foundational personalities. It should be resisted. Not only because it renders them inaccessible to us but it also gives the false impression that we today can never hope to match their achievements.