Book Review: Stephen Harrigan's A Friend of Mr. Lincoln
This historical novel gives us an ambitious, impetuous president-to-be we grow close to
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 30, 2016
Oh, Lincoln, what have you done now?
You may feel that question, and the sigh that goes with it, pop up more than once as you follow Honest Abe down the dusty streets of Springfield, Ill., in this Stephen Harrigan novel. For though this is the man who one day will be our 16th president, the preserver of the Union, the Great Emancipator, that day is still quite far off. The Mr. Lincoln in these pages is in his 20s as the book begins, just starting to work his way into the Illinois political machine and yet to even pass the bar. He's aflame with ambition but lacking in direction and purpose, and a combustible combination of impulsiveness, romanticism, and a bit of a cruel streak prompts him to make rash decisions, landing him in entanglements and imbroglios that range from the awkward to the dangerous.
Oh, Lincoln, why did you kiss Mary Todd when you went to see her to break up with her?
Oh, Lincoln, why did you write those anonymous letters viciously attacking your political opponent's character?
Oh, Lincoln, why did you continue to mock that judge you were debating until he burst into tears and ran from the courtroom?
Oh, Lincoln, why, for God's sake, did you agree to a duel?!
So it goes with this impetuous figure chasing destiny on the edge of the American frontier in the 1830s and 1840s. He is young as the country is still young: driven by dreams of greatness but rushing toward them with more confidence than sense of his actions' consequences, making him frequently his own worst enemy. With this mindset moving in tandem with dramatic mood swings that at times lead Lincoln to the verge of suicide, you might think the most likely destiny awaiting the man is an early grave. But part of the genius of Harrigan's approach here is to supply the friend of the title – the poet Cage Weatherby, a fictional character – through whose eyes we may see the young Lincoln with all his faults and his virtues. Cage is present to witness and admire Lincoln's disarming way with a crowd while speaking on the stump, his command of the law and oratorical skill in the courtroom while winning an escaped slave his freedom, his philosophical bent, his deep passion for poetry, and the decency that was the bedrock beneath his ambition. "He seemed to Cage to be a man who desperately wanted to be better than the world would ever possibly let him be. But in Lincoln's case that hunger did not seem underlaid with anger, as with other men it might, but with a strange seeping kindness." The closeness with which Cage regards Lincoln brings us into our own intimate relationship with the man. We may not ever completely understand him, but we come to know him in all his complexity and contradictions.
That running sense of exasperation with the novel's Lincoln is a measure of how close we get to him in this book. He inspires the kind of frustration we feel only for those people about whom we care deeply. The mythic Lincoln of our history classes, whose profile graces our penny, who sits in marble in our nation's capital, is someone we may never have felt a kinship with; he is, after all, our national saint. But Harrigan carries us deep into the world that Lincoln the man inhabited, with all its sights and sounds and passions described in absorbing detail, and he introduces us to the places and people that were important to and shaped the man who eventually led the nation, with the end result being that he inspires in us the feelings Lincoln's friend has: "Cage had friends, but not one like Abraham Lincoln was beginning to seem: an intimate, a confidant, a man with whom one could lie in bed while the candle flickered and discuss the dreams of God." Harrigan's achievement here is not just to give us a fascinating, flesh-and-blood Mr. Lincoln, but to make the reader a friend of his, too.
A Friend of Mr. Lincolnby Stephen Harrigan
Alfred A. Knopf, 415 pp., $27.95