July 24, 2007

Gore Vidal and Lincoln

One of my favorite experiences is discovering an artist/writer, who is already a giant in their field. I love realizing, after reading a book or hearing an album, how much more of their work I can still explore. Let me tell you; I have hit the jackpot. Over the years, I have learned to read as many Gore Vidal essays or articles on the Iraq war that I could get my hands on. His work is always erudite, accurate, and emotional without being melodramatic.

His name has always been on the top of my list of authors to checkout when at the bookstore, but like all to-do subjects he seems to always be forgotten, until a few months ago when I finally sauntered to the V section and realized what a prolific writer he is.

Without further introduction let me say that I have boarded the Gore Vidal train, and I do not see myself dismounting until I have read everything this man has ever written, and that is no small feat. Vidal has written twenty-two novels, five plays, many screenplays, short stories, well over two hundred essays, and two memoirs.

For this post, I would like to focus on the first book I read from his Narratives of Empire series: Lincoln. I picked Lincoln because it seemed like a fascinating read, not realizing that it is the second in the Narrative of Empire series. I have since done some research and realized that the complete list looks like this; Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C. and the Golden Age. These books span the history of America from the Revolutionary War to post WWII America.

I have not been this affected by a writer since first reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. In short, Vidal’s Lincoln is a masterpiece. This book is not only for people interested in politics or history, although his account of the Civil War and the men who orchestrated it is sublime; this book is for anyone interested in understanding the human experience through literature.

At six hundred and sixty seven pages the narrative may appear daunting, but because of the near cinematic accuracy of the prose, each scene keeps the reader glued to the action. With the balanced and objective eye of reporter, Vidal moves us through the lives and minds of some of the most famous names in American history. Not only are we introduced to a more complicated Lincoln than any text book has even had the courage to illustrate, but we are also shown that the men in our history books are not infallible statues or saints, but rather that men prone to politics and power are just like the men who sit in the White House today.

By bringing history to life through fiction, Vidal reminds us that power and politics are timeless. The struggles of men for ideas like freedom when faced with capitalistic greed, know no century. The similarities between Lincoln and George Bush for example are startling. Lincoln was the first president to suspend Heabus Corpus in order to keep the Union intact. He also arrested newspaper editors and closed down their establishments if they were pro-confederacy. Sounds a lot like the Patriot Act.

I will not get into the details of the history, but I will say that immediately after finishing it, I ran to the store and bought Burr. I plan to read every single book in the series in succession. That is how good they are. I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It is as close to perfect as I have ever seen when it comes to fiction.

I hope to write a more complete post on my thoughts on historic fiction after reading more of the series. It is a genre that I am just discovering, and while at first I was always questioning what was “true” and what Vidal had made up, I began to wonder why I never asked myself the same question of textbook authors. I have always felt that there is no such thing as non-fiction. Men write history and so historic fiction is not made-up, it is simply history brought to life.

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