Stephen Harrigan on A Friend of Mr. Lincoln
The Austin writer reveals the vision behind his portrait of the 16th president as a young man in his new novel
Of course we think we know the man on the penny. He's as deeply ingrained in our national life as anyone who's occupied the Oval Office, and so much about him is embedded in the American consciousness: Born in a log cabin. Wedded to Mary Todd. The Lincoln-Douglas debates. The Emancipation Proclamation. The Gettysburg Address. The 16th president and first to be felled by an assassin's bullet. The Memorial on the National Mall. One of four faces on Mount Rushmore. One of two presidents whose birthday has traditionally been celebrated as a national holiday. The rail-splitter. The prairie lawyer. The Great Emancipator. Honest Abe.
Still, most of what we know of Abraham Lincoln comes from his later years, when he was president and fighting to preserve the Union, a time when he was fully formed as both a politician and a human being. But what do we know of this iconic figure before the die was cast, when he was still seeking his way in the world, finding purpose and direction? That's the question that intrigued writer Stephen Harrigan and led him to pursue the answer in a novel.
Tackling a subject so familiar and widely written about might give other authors pause, but this is the man who took on Texas' most mythic and exhaustively anatomized story in his novel, The Gates of the Alamo. So Harrigan dove back into the American frontier of the 1830s and surfaced with A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, the tale of a tall, lanky, fiercely ambitious, and deeply insecure young attorney in the thick of the Illinois political scene, working his way up the ladder of power and influence, trying to do right, making friends and enemies, falling in love, behaving badly, writing morbid poems, and telling dirty jokes. He's as deliberate and eloquent as the Lincoln you expect, but also refreshingly awkward and politically savvy. With the book hitting stores Feb. 2 and Harrigan appearing at BookPeople Feb. 3, this seemed an ideal time to learn more about the book's origins.
Austin Chronicle: I figured that after The Gates of the Alamo, you'd have had your fill of humanizing mythologized heroes of 19th-century America. What made you go back to the period and take on Lincoln?
Stephen Harrigan: Well, after The Gates of the Alamo, I never wanted to go back to the 19th century. I'd done a ton of research for that book, and I thought I'd gotten it out of my system. But then [my wife] Sue Ellen and I were driving to Massachusetts one summer and listening to Team of Rivals – you know, the Doris Kearns Goodwin book? – and she talked a little bit about Lincoln's early life in Springfield. Not a lot, but there was enough detail that it made me aware for the first time how messed up he was at this point in his life. He was very, very, very ambitious – clearly had a sense of destiny about himself – but like all of us, he didn't know how to be the person he wanted to be or thought he should be. And that struck a universal chord. I said to Sue Ellen, "Look, we're going through Illinois. Let's go to Springfield." And we went to Springfield and saw his house and the old state capitol, and it was a very vivid experience for me to be thrown into this 19th-century world so familiar to me from writing my other book.
I didn't set out to de-mythologize him in any particular way. He just interested me as a character. I mean, we all know what he became and what the end of the story was, but I was very taken with the idea of writing about somebody who was struggling to become the person we know him as. And to that degree, he wasn't any different than you or me. He was just this guy, you know, very compelling guy, very full of life and vitality and ambition, but also deeply full of doubt and depression and anxiety – social anxiety, in particular, and anxiety about sex and marriage – so to that degree it felt like a very contemporary, relatable story.
AC: Your young Lincoln is in some ways so different from the man in the White House, at least as we believe we understand him. So how did you find his voice?
SH: Well, I read the letters that were available. I read his speeches. And I read things that people said about him. Then I just let it fly. He came very easily as a character to me. It's a lot of fun to burrow beneath the mythological caricature of these people and try to animate them. The big job with this book was not to be intimidated by Lincoln – to be aware of the person he became while not letting that influence the person he was as I was writing about him.
One of the remarkable things to me was that, yes, he was a very impressive character in Springfield but not the most impressive. If you'd come upon him when he was 29 or 30, he's talking to John J. Hardin, he's talking to Ned Baker, to Stephen Douglas ... there was this incredible efflorescence of political talent, and you wouldn't necessarily have picked Lincoln out in a room as the guy who was going to go all the way – and not just go all the way but become our only historical saint ... except for Martin Luther King, I guess. My job was just to get back to that point, to get to that eye-level view of Lincoln as you would've seen him in, say, 1838. And his voice ... it just felt like I knew it. I made up a lot of dialogue, obviously – you can't write a novel without making up dialogue – but I was tuned in to the pitch of his voice in his letters and his speeches.
AC: In tackling Lincoln as a character, obviously you turned to historical research. Did you look at other fictional depictions of him? We've had the recent film Lincoln, but there are older plays and movies: Young Mr. Lincoln, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, ....
SH: I saw the Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln, and I've seen other Lincoln movies, so I didn't stringently avoid other fictional depictions. But I banished them from my mind while I was writing, because there's too much cognitive dissonance. I don't want to get onto somebody else's brain waves. And I was dealing with part of his life that I hadn't seen written about that much, so it felt like a reasonably clear field in terms of imagining this character. But I had to keep driving the iconic Lincoln out of my mind. I had to constantly keep reminding myself: He doesn't have a beard. He's young, he's strong, he's not a statesman ... yet. He's just this young guy on the make.
AC: Was there anything about Lincoln, that he thought or did, that surprised you as you were working on the book?
SH: The thing that surprised me the most about him as I was researching the book was an undercurrent of cruelty to him that every once in a while would slip above the surface, of mockery and envy and jealousy. You see it particularly in the anonymous letters he wrote in the newspapers and later with James Shields, which provoked a duel. And you see it in this episode called "the skinning of Thomas," where he makes this poor political opponent cry just by his brilliant mockery of him. There was something about all that that didn't make him a villain to me or knock him off whatever pedestal I was dealing with at the time, but it made him more relatable. His ambition was at times ahead of his character, and he got caught in the slipstream of that ambition.
Also, he was so tortured over questions of honesty and honor and integrity that he would overreach and do something dishonest and dishonorable and then punish himself so deeply that he was almost – in fact, was – suicidal. He was, like I said, kind of a mess. A brilliant mess, but he had yet to straighten himself out. He was a young man with no great role models for how to be a man, no understanding of how to be around women, no idea of how to arrive where he wanted to arrive and be the person he wanted to be. He was under construction all the time this book is going on.
AC: I really like the circle of friends as you draw them in the novel because there is this shared ambition among them, but it doesn't feel as calculated as the ambition we see today. The doubt they experience seems like part of this journey to discover how to be who they want to be. And they want to feel they've contributed something to the world.
SH: Yeah. I think that's probably true with most politicians today ... well, say, five or six of them [laughs]. But I think they're warped by cynicism and celebrity and media, and it wasn't quite as true in that time. There was this relentless internal calculation of how to get ahead, but there was also this rhetorical overlay that is a sense of common purpose and common good, and it may have been a quarter of an inch deep, but it counted for something. We've lost some of that. There's a rawness to the political culture today – seems strange to say it, because it was as raw as it could be back in the middle of the 19th century, but it feels less authentic today, more manipulative, less believable. You have to hide everything interesting about yourself, whereas in Lincoln's day, you could let it out, and they did. And there was a lot more on the surface. There was a lot of conniving, of course, and backroom dealing, but nobody was afraid of ambition. Everybody was drawn to it. They were in this place, Springfield, Illinois, which was kind of the back of the moon at that time, and they needed to make themselves relevant, and they needed to count, and nobody was embarrassed to say those things out loud. Today, we're a little more craven about our ambition, because I guess from experience, from watching it on TV and stuff, it seems like the worst possible trait. But then it was an essential trait. You couldn't be anybody if you didn't aspire to something.
AC: And you start the novel when the nation is only 60 years old. When we meet Lincoln at his youngest, in the Black Hawk War, it's still a very unformed country, and a lot of that ambition is being channeled into, "We have all this space that we can do so much with." I find that space very illuminating. I buy into that sense of Illinois being on the frontier of a new nation inventing itself.
SH: Yeah, they were very conscious of that, of what the revolutionary generation had pulled off and how to live up to that and build on it. And those ideas of liberty and self-expression and freedom, all those went hand in hand with rapacious conquest with the Indians and slavery and everything else, but they were still virtues and attributes that were essential to forming some kind of national identity.
AC: It feels very important that these young men have a circle of people they can talk to and share ideas with and in some cases plot the political future of their community with. Is friendship something you were conscious of needing to be the foundation of the book?
SH: I think I was conscious of it. I try not to be conscious of too much while I'm writing a book because the minute I know what it's about, then I start writing that. But when I look back on the book, to the degree that I have any perspective on it at all, it seems to be about this intertwined friendship and ambition, this group of people bound together by this common need to be somebody and who become intimate friends because of that. And we all feel that. I have long had intimate friendships in Austin of the same sort, people who are bound together in what seems like, when you're young, a holy quest. The book wanted to be about that. I didn't set out saying, "I want to write a book about friendship," but it inevitably became that. It's about Lincoln, but it's not exclusively about Lincoln. It's about this circle of aspiration that these people have.
AC: You seem so at ease in that era. The writing about it and what's going on flows so effortlessly. Granted, you came to this book having already written a great story in that period, but was this an easy world for you to slide into and put on the page?
SH: Well, I guess probably no. I don't want to overemphasize the difficulty of writing a book like this, and I feel drawn to the challenge of it, but there wasn't really ... it's a surprise to me that people like this book, [laughs] because I never did. Every page was kind of a logical hurdle of, well, I've got Ned Baker here, I've got to account for what he's doing. I've got to account for this congressional election and this state Legislature election. I've got to account for the overall national context. I've got to account for Mary Todd. I've got to have this dinner party, and I've got to have all these people at the dinner party, but how do I focus where I need to focus? So there were these constant juggling tricks, trying to keep the story moving forward and yet informing the reader what life was like then and having with a subtle hand – or at least aspiring to have with a subtle hand – to make the political and cultural world vivid. There were times when I despaired of whether I could pull this off. I've had experiences on other books where I could write 20 pages a day, flawless pages that went right into the book, and in this one if I had a page a day, that was good. I mean, that was really an exceptional day. And a lot of that was just crunching the data, you know, doing the research and then trying to figure out what to do with the research so it didn't seem like research. So I'm really delighted that you say it's smooth reading, 'cause it was rough sailing.
AC: It's positively chatty to me, like the conversation among actors while they're getting ready for a show. I'm sorry that it was difficult for you. But it paid off.
SH: [Laughs] I sacrificed myself for your reading pleasure.
Stephen Harrigan will read from A Friend of Mr. Lincoln and sign copies Wed., Feb. 3, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit www.bookpeople.com.