Lincoln: A Novel is a 1984 historical novel, part of the Narratives of Empire series by Gore Vidal. The novel describes the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and extends from the start of the American Civil War until his assassination. Rather than focus on the Civil War itself, the novel is centred on Lincoln’s political and personal struggles. Though Lincoln is the focus, the book is never narrated from his point of view (with the exception of several paragraphs describing a dream Lincoln had shortly before his death); Vidal instead writes from the perspective of key historical figures. He draws from contemporary diaries, memoirs, letters, newspaper accounts, the biographical writings of John Hay and John Nicolay (Lincoln’s secretaries), and the work of modern historians.
The novel is part of Gore Vidal’s ‘Narratives of Empire’ series and joins his other works; Burr (1973), 1876 (1976) and Washington D.C. (1967) as chronicles of America. In the series, Vidal offers works of historical fiction that reinterpret American history starting from the American Revolution and spanning past World War II.
The book is never narrated from Lincoln’s perspective. Rather, the reader views Lincoln through the eyes of his enemies, friends, political rivalries and even those who sought to kill him. Significant characters include Lincoln’s cabinet secretaries; William Seward, Salmon Chase as well as Kate Sprague, John Hay, Mary Todd Lincoln and David Herold.
Much of the writing is presented through dramatic, flamboyant dialogue. Vidal favours this over narration or observational writing, attempting to convey his own personal wit and charisma through his characters.
The novel is not simply a work of historical fiction, but with Lincoln’s personal and political development it is also a Bildungsroman. Lincoln’s development starts with the slow mobilisation and unification of his inner Cabinet, climaxes with his military victory and political restoration of the Union and is completed with his assassination
“Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.”