Man of Mystery

Lincoln Authors Can’t Agree on Lincoln

Novelists Tom LeClair and Jerome Charyn talk about their respective experiences of dealing with the ever mysterious Honest Abe in their fiction.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

I didn’t know what to expect when I opened Tom LeClair’s new novel, Lincoln’s Billy, and I was sucked in by the marvelous syncopation of the narrator’s voice.

I was Lincoln’s Billy. Billy club when Lincoln refused to knock heads in Springfield. Billy goat when he needed a battering ram to reach Washington. Billy boy when he required a charming Billy to scare up money for his campaigns.

The man who tells his own sad tale as “Lincoln’s Billy” is William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, political advisor, and friend. Yet not that much has ever been revealed about Billy, who remains in Lincoln’s shadow, though he was Lincoln’s first and very best biographer. Herndon is one of the great riddles of Lincoln scholarship, almost impossible to unravel because of his many incarnations—lawyer, abolitionist, mayor of Springfield, impoverished farmer, collector of Lincoln legends, and town drunk. Billy failed at almost everything he did. He failed to publish an unexpurgated biography of Lincoln, so Tom LeClair has stepped in to write this bawdy expose of young Lincoln, a tough sinewy novel about the very nature of narrative voice. The book reads like poetry disguised as sandpaper.

LeClair has published five other novels and is one of our most perceptive critics of postmodern literature, a kind of whale hunter in search of “monstrosities,” novels that are wayward and subversive and defy any definition of form. He admires Stanley Elkin, William Gass, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon, among others. He is also an avid ping-pong player. That’s where Tom and I first met, over a ping-pong table. And we’ve been battling it out over the past five years. When my own novel about Lincoln, I Am Abraham, was published last year, Tom interviewed me in The Daily Beast, and now it’s my chance to spin the ball and continue our conversation.

—Jerome Charyn

CHARYN: Tom, you’ve written your own subversive novel with a supple and unique voice. Where did you find Herndon’s “imprint,” his amazing musicality? It’s certainly not in his own writing.

LeCLAIR: Like some postmodern hoax, Billy’s “own writing” is not his own because his collaborator, Jesse Weik, wrote much of the 1889 biography, Herndon’s Lincoln, from the memoranda and letters Herndon sent him. Unlike Lincoln, whose secretaries wrote most of his letters as president, Billy wrote his own letters, but they are effusive and bombastic in the 19th-century legal style, so I had to rein in Herndon’s voice to one that contemporary readers would tolerate for more than 20 pages. Because Lincoln’s Billy purports to be Billy’s unedited “autobiography” and “secret life” of Lincoln, I needed an informal yet sometimes literary and learned style because Billy was a very well-read man, more of an intellectual than Lincoln, whose story-telling in the novel is much more colloquial than Billy’s narration. Lincoln’s Billy is most essentially about trust, and the two styles compete for authority or belief.

CHARYN: And compete for truth. Isn’t “Lincoln’s Billy” also Billy Liar?

LeCLAIR: My Billy a liar? [a soft chuckle] Lincoln trusted his Billy more than any other person, certainly more than the proven liar Mary Todd Lincoln. Even Herndon’s condescending biographer, David Donald, trusted Billy on the facts that he gathered and presented. But Billy is writing this “document” at the end of his life when he’s impoverished, and he might have ulterior reasons for not accurately retelling all of Lincoln’s stories. I like your question because it introduces a significant difference in the ways we depict Lincoln. Your I Am Abraham offers an original and thoughtful version of the private and public Lincoln as protagonist and as narrator whose reliability—he is Honest Abe, after all—is taken for granted. Because Lincoln’s Billy is not just narrated by Billy but written by him under difficult circumstances, the novel can cast suspicion on Honest Abe and Trustworthy Billy—and on the truth of history, whatever that is. To me, I Am Abraham seems written under the sign of the 19th-century realistic novel, maybe Howells (who wrote a campaign biography of Lincoln) or James. My 19th-century mentors in Lincoln’s Billy are the hoaxer Poe and the “no trust” Melville of The Confidence Man and Benito Cereno, so our Lincolns are rather different from each other, as well as different from the Lincoln of his biographers.

CHARYN: My own mentors weren’t Howells or James, but Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, another teller of tall tales, but one with moral passion. In a way, Lincoln and his Billy remind me of Huck and Jim, though Billy wasn’t black and Billy wasn’t a slave. Yet your novel suggests a strange camaraderie between Lincoln and Billy, with Billy always as the junior partner and secret accomplice, younger, more volatile, but as he looks back at his law partner who was deified once he died, Billy wants to break through all the masks and all the myths. I myself was touched by Billy, and devoted several chapters to him in my novel. And I was deeply touched by your Billy in Lincoln’s Billy, how you managed to make him come alive on the page and allow us to feel his own wound: Lincoln abandoned Billy, didn’t take him to Washington, left him to rattle in the wind. This abandonment is one of the keys to your novel. You’re clear about his opinion of Mary, but what do you think Billy finally felt about the man-god who had once been his law partner?

LeCLAIR: Billy visited Washington twice, didn’t like it, and didn’t like cities in general. When he began lecturing about Lincoln not long after the assassination and revealing uncomplimentary facts about the “man-god,” the worshippers said Billy resented Lincoln and betrayed him for, as you say, abandoning him. But Billy always denied he wanted to serve in Washington. Your novel ends with Lincoln’s assassination. Billy lived until 1891, so he has a somewhat longer view of Lincoln than your Lincoln could have had of himself. By the end of his life, Billy recognized that some of Lincoln’s policies—such as his support for the railroad—and some of Lincoln’s Republican cronies were partly responsible for Billy’s failure as a small farmer. But I think Billy always loved Lincoln the man, who was his best friend for two decades, and it’s that love that got Billy in trouble from those first lectures all the way through his published biography. He believed that the early biographers who made Lincoln a saint did him a disservice. By revealing his flaws, Billy felt he magnified, rather than diminished, Lincoln’s heroism because it required Lincoln to overcome his all-too-human limitations and circumstances—his superstitions and bouts of depression, his ugliness and awkwardness, his life with the harridan Mary, the deaths of two children. At the end of Lincoln’s Billy, Billy has reason to suspect that some of the stories Lincoln has told him about his two formative trips to New Orleans may have been made up to calm, as you say, the “volatile” abolitionist Billy, but despite his suspicion Billy seems to remain loyal. “Seems” because readers will have to judge whom to trust at the end when Billy recalls—or possibly invents—one final dialogue about New Orleans. I had Billy describe his relationship with Old Abe as “avuncular,” but Billy also wonders if Lincoln envied Billy’s early “featherbed” happiness. Given your interest in Lincoln’s sexuality, do you think the relationship was Oedipal in some way?

CHARYN: Tom, that’s a question with two loaded barrels—perhaps three. I’m not sure that Lincoln’s sexuality plays out here. One might ask if Lincoln had any sexual feelings towards Billy, and if Billy wanted to usurp Lincoln’s role as father-protector, or if Lincoln had any desire to run like the devil from Mary and sleep with Billy’s first wife. And I would have to say that all three loaded barrels have very little reverberation. I believe that Lincoln used Billy, as you suggest in the opening lines of your novel. Lincoln always had the instincts of a politician, even as a very young man. And so much of the power of your novel comes from Billy’s own realization that he is being played, but that he still enjoyed the rumble of it all, the need to be Lincoln’s Billy, whether a subterranean part of him resented it or not. Yet I have the suspicion that you yourself don’t really admire Lincoln, that you identify far more with Billy’s bumbling around than with the craftiness that allowed Lincoln to capture the presidency. Am I wrong?

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LeCLAIR: You say three barrels. How about three hats? As a citizen, how can one not admire Lincoln the stovepipe statesman? But as a novelist, I was most drawn to Lincoln the obsessive storyteller, a man who would interrupt the most serious business of state to tell jokes and stories. Your Lincoln reports and meditates on important events. My Lincoln tells tales, sometimes tall, often vulgar. As a critic, though, I identify with Billy, the person who listens to and has to evaluate the worth of those stories. But, as Ahab says to Starbuck, you want the “little lower layer.” You’re right: I was attracted to Herndon because he was so often a failure, as you have pointed out. Initially, I found his mind more interesting than Lincoln’s. Billy was more widely read in law, literature, and science, more dedicated to social justice, a free thinker, an opponent of Christian fundamentalism and monopolistic corporations, a quixotic altruist, a man often ahead of his time. But Billy’s mind failed for twenty years to produce his biography. When he finally managed with his collaborator, the publisher folded and Billy earned nothing for his family. Failed as a lawyer and as a farmer, in failing health, Billy never got to write the frank Lincoln biography he wanted or his own autobiography, so I decided to do both for him in one book. You told me you got interested in writing about Lincoln when you discovered he suffered from the depressions that debilitated you during one period in your life. Why do you think we’re drawn to failure? It can’t be that we’re so often defeated at the ping-pong table.

CHARYN: Failure emboldens us, makes us crafty, even on the ping-pong table. And many of the writers I admire—Melville, Dickinson, Kafka—were virtually invisible during their lifetimes. Art, I think, often has to dance around in the void. And what I find curious is that I ever became a writer at all. I grew up in the South Bronx, the land of poverty and petty hoodlums. There wasn’t even one fucking book in my house, and yet here I am, a kind of rabbinical scholar of words. I don’t think your background was much different from mine, if you shift the landscape from the South Bronx to rural Vermont. So how did we both end up with a lifelong fascination for problematic language and labyrinthian tales?

LeCLAIR: For the first eight grades, I went to a one-room schoolhouse with Faulkner’s Bundrens and Snopeses. Calvin Coolidge’s old high school wasn’t much better, but I escaped Vermont to be educated in logic- and language-chopping by the Jesuits at Boston College. You somehow crossed boroughs to Columbia. Maybe we both have a respect for literacy and the literary not always found in those with better early education. But much as we might want to celebrate our Lincoln-like rise above circumstances, don’t we have to admit that our teaching literature in universities probably accounts for our interest in the problematic and difficult? And, come to think of it, wouldn’t our training in literary ambiguity quite naturally, if somewhat belatedly, lead us to the enigmatic character of American history—Lincoln? You’ve perused the library shelves of books about him and read many of them. They are like some multi-volume modernist novel with a hundred points of view. Multiplicity and uncertainty gives us an opening. Why shouldn’t we novelists enter in and imagine the unrecorded intimate experience of the long-dead icon, the experience largely ignored by the factotums of fact and purveyors of interpretation? Herndon’s informants refused to repeat the off-color stories Lincoln told, so I had to invent them, just as you had to invent the erotic attraction of Mary Todd. Of course we will differ in our imagined Lincolns. And I suppose our differences create more ambiguity, but I accept that because I believe fiction can humanize the men in larger-than-life marble and heroic bronze. And for men like William Herndon, maybe a novel can erect a small statue of words, a reminder that even giants need their Billys and may be judged by them.

Tom LeClair’s latest novel, Lincoln’s Billy, will be published by Permanent Press on April 15.

Jerome Charyn’s latest novel, I Am Abraham, was just reissued in paperback, and in June Liveright will publish Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories.