In I Am Abraham, Jerome Charyn audaciously creates President Lincoln’s autobiography.
When did your fascination with Lincoln begin?
After I finished writing The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson I was trawling around for another subject. One day, I was having lunch with literary critic and social historian Brenda Wineapple, and she began talking about Lincoln as a prose poet rather than a politician. And so I dug into Lincoln, but I couldn’t find a melodic line for him until I read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s poignant study of Lincoln’s lifelong depression. And it’s with this melancholy that I found Lincoln’s music.
Was Lincoln harder to write about than Dickinson?
The great challenge with Dickinson was to write in a woman’s voice, to feel her cadences, to burrow under her skin. But with Dickinson, much of the material is right in front of your eyes. We do not have the same wondrous blueprint with Lincoln. We have little cadences here and there. Everything seems mythologized, filtered, second-hand. With Dickinson, one could always stay in the shadows, since she had such a closeted life, except for the startling power of her imagination. But with Lincoln one can only begin with a kind of hallucination and remain within the tightrope of possibility. I dreamed my way into Lincoln and the details that moved me—his lack of education or “civilized” manners and his deep connection to all humankind.
Can you talk about how you worked out Lincoln’s voice?
It was difficult to find my way into I Am Abraham, to feel confident enough to inhabit Lincoln’s persona. I began with a prologue in a neutral voice, wrote of Lincoln at the White House, with a sly young reporter quizzing him about his humble origins. The prologue didn’t work because it pulled us away from Lincoln and his wife, robbed them of the intimacy one needed to start a novel. I ripped out the prologue, and began in New Salem, where Lincoln arrives as an unschooled, young man and resurrects himself into a lawyer, a militia captain, and a legislator. And the novel proceeds like a song that skips through time and eternity, as Lincoln might say, until we arrive at the White House, where Lincoln’s voice carries us right through the war. Phil Marino, a young editor at Liveright/Norton who admired the book, felt that it might need a narrative frame, that I should begin with Lincoln during the last day of his life, and that the novel itself should be a fractured reminiscence of a President with an assassin’s bullet spiraling through his brain. I wasn’t sure I could write such a prologue, that I could capture his last day. And then the image of Lee’s sword at Appomattox came to me, and I built the prologue around Lincoln’s curiosity about the sword, which occupies him while he’s at Ford’s Theater.