Thursday, November 24, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life- 63 ( Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”)

Jottings : Slice of life- 63 ( Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”)
No other man in recorded Human History has so much written about him or his work, his influence or his legendary personality - as Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. The number of written works alone around this enigmatic man totals to more than 15,000, let alone other art forms . Ironically, only one more individual can rival that claim, and that is Jesus - the Christ. In the iconic Ford museum in Washington DC, where Lincoln eventually met the assassin’s bullet, there is a 34 foot tower (picture attached) erected in memory of his life and death. At first glimpse, the tower would seem odd, but one quickly realizes its entire structure is made of metal replicas of front covers of books written on Lincoln. A little placard placed nearby announces that 6800 books are represented so far in the column, only a fraction of the total written with more to come. When I saw this tower for the first time in February 2015, I was transfixed for some time. What was it in Lincoln which still captivates ones imagination. Is it a sense of disbelief and awe, Like Gandhi, that such a man could have actually existed in the shifting political world of nascent America, or simply an overpowering feeling of greatness and faith in humanity and its core values, or is it the tremendous confidence his life instills in each one of us - despite odds, setbacks, rivalry, war and peace, inequities and dissensions - to find an inner reservoir of self confidence, dignity and equality , not merely for oneself , but for all mankind. It is difficult to answer. Perhaps, it is all of this, and more.
I am not embarrassed to admit that when I was young, I believed the Lincoln founded the USA, and was the first President of it. For many years, nothing that I heard, read or saw seemed to contradict my conviction. Until, a wonderful History teacher politely pulled me aside one day, when I vociferously argued about Lincoln’s position, and gently informed me George Washington was the first after the constitution was ratified in 1788. He had to open a book, and prove it to me. That was over three decades ago. But even recently, surveys bear out the fact that not all American children are still sure who their First president was. The name that comes most easily and effortless to their minds is Lincoln. Such is the indelible mark of the Man and his aura.
The story of Lincoln needs no repetition. Its been told too many times, and many more new tales are spun each day by each new author or researcher. Nearly five thousand biographies exist, which discuss threadbare his day to day life in all its different dimensions. In a way, Lincoln was fortunate. Almost everything that he said, wrote, grunted, whispered and orated have found place on paper, except his childhood days, which to a large extent is based upon accounts heard or passed on. Therefore, it is easy for a diligent scholar to find all the material they want, and draw a thousand interpretations from it. What comes out clearly from those voluminous details is the life of a self educated man, not very handsome, quick witted, extremely dexterous with words and ideas, widely read, sympathizing husband, condescending father, wonderful friend, scheming statesman, deeply spiritual without being outwardly religious, and above all possessing a political acumen which could weigh, balance and measure situations with a razor sharp perception, and stand by his own convictions no matter what the odds were. It was a momentous point in the newly formed nation, when he assumed power. Barely hundred years had passed before it was being cut asunder into anarchy and primitivism. The dream, the vision , the glory that bought the “New land” into shape against all odds with is motherland was at the cross roads of its existence and forced to face its demons. It was Lincolns Job as President to determine whether there was a future for this country or not. Nothing else mattered. An undecided North and a belligerent South were pulling in different directions, and in the process sucking millions of young men into death and mutilation. The civil war - as historians have come to call it - was the one single most agenda in Lincoln’s mind. Surrounded by best brains and brawn, pushing him often into compromising positions, Lincoln needed to keep his vision of an unified country intact. That was his singular strength. Almost super human strength, if I may call it. A lesser man than him would have buckled in, But not Abraham Lincoln. His entire presidency was based on simple two point agenda. That slavery should be abolished, and secondly, no state shall secede from the Union while doing so. There could not have been a more difficult, stressful and morally conflicting battleground for this agenda to succeed. And surprisingly, as if all the powers of the universe converged into the body and soul of Lincoln, he was the best suitable man for that kind of battle. The 15,000 books available in print, and many more that will continue to be written are all efforts to try and understand how he managed win the battle, and what kind of inner spirit kept him to his task with unswerving commitment.
My Interest in America’s experiment with democracy has led me to read quite a bit on Lincoln. Though, I am not a “Lincoln scholar” by any stretch of imagination; but, as a student of literature and philosophy, I have read some of the best books written on and around him. Starting with Michael Burlingame’s “Life of Lincoln” , Stephen B Oates “malice toward none”, Doris Kearns Goodwill ” Team of Rivals”, Garry wills “ Lincoln at Gettysburg: the words that remade America” ( one of the finest books on what is arguably the greatest speech ever) - all of them attempt to demystify Lincoln. But in my opinion, if there is one book on Lincoln you may wish to read to understand Lincoln during his tenure as president, my recommendation would be Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln - a novel”. It is historical fiction at its best. Many readers may not know who Vidal is. Thats alright, I will reserve a different essay to introduce Vidal to them. Suffice it to say that Vidal was one of incisive political and social commentators on American society in the last fifty years. He died in 2013. A prolific writer with great feel for language and dialogue, Vidal reconstructed Lincoln from historical archives to a breathing, doubtful, faltering , yet courageous, visionary and tenacious President - who rose above his times to restore a fractured republic. Its a novel, therefore, Vidal takes few liberties of a novelist. But the overall impact of the 700 page book is a breath taking insider view of what it took Lincoln to harness all scattered energies around him into one singular thrust towards preserving the Union without slavery. In Vidal’s hand, Lincoln becomes a Human again. As readers, we move with the highs and troughs of his tumultuous life and its tragic end.
Lincoln was a complex man. There is no doubt about that. He lived his life at various levels, not easily accessible. A straight factual biography of him can only gives us raw details, but never the juice that flowed within. And that is where, a great fiction writer with firm grasp of essentials facts, and a superlative imagination can make the difference. Just as an Irving stone could breathe life into Van Gough’s or Michelangelo’s tortured and intense lives in his brilliant Biographical novels, or a James Michener could bring a Alaskan or Texan landscapes alive in his moving novels on American history; Vidal infuses realism and emotion into Lincoln’s political success and near failures. He never tries to deify or venerate Lincoln. Where Lincoln’ nerves fail, where his towering intellect succeeded, wherever his scheming political brain maneuvers - Vidal presents them with due candor, interspersed with masterful strokes of dramatization. The result is we get a picture of a man, who really did not like what he was doing as President, but couldn't help it because he was propelled by a force beyond his power. All that Lincoln had was a firm conviction about what United states of America should be, and all other factors which came in the way of the dream became subservient to that one overpowering vision. Vidal does not fail to present the fact that there were abler men during Lincoln’s time, who probably were more suited to be the President. But, he points out, equally well that none could match that unique combination of force, wit, intellect and tact which Lincoln possessed, and his ability to draw from vast, deep reservoirs of inner strength when it was needed most. When the chips were down, Lincoln would soar like an eagle - like he did at Gettysburg - When in a matter of less than three minutes and 272 words, he raised an entire nation from to depths of agony to heights to patriotism. Vidal’s Lincoln is a Man of such anomalies. Even after 150 years of diligent study of his life by academia, he still remains an enigma .
Gore Vidal, once famously described the USA as “United states of Amnesia”. He believed Americans have forgotten their history, their struggle and the story behind the republic they now so proudly inhabit. A staunch critic of the Bush administration, and an Obama sympathizer, One wonders what he would have said about the recent elections and its surprising outcome. In one of his last interviews, Vidal said, and I paraphrase “ sometimes, it is good for new blood to be infused into a political system. Practices become habits, and unless someone steps outside and looks at it, there can be no change, least of all any progress..”
Gore vidal’s Lincoln is a man who stepped out of the box, and had the daring to envision a united country. His novel demonstrates how Lincoln managed the near impossible feat - with all the facts, passion, rigor and grace of an accomplished story teller.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


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