I recently had occasion to reread the amusing exchange between Gore Vidal and two historians over the former’s novel Lincoln in the New York Review of Books. Vidal, a man who never let a slight go, spent a lengthy open letter roasting Richard N. Current and Harold Holtzer, who had both criticized his novel, and attacked Vidal himself, for its historical inaccuracies. He attacked Current (a legitimate scholar, in his defense) as a humorless pedant obsessed with proving minutia like the origin of the word “hooker” and that Lincoln didn’t move his bowels as often as Vidal claimed, something Vidal’s book spends a handful of sentences on; Holtzer, who’s built a cottage industry publishing short, insubstantial works on Lincoln, he dismisses as “the caption writer” and “the publicist,” barely worthy of notice.
If there’s any substantial “inaccuracy” to rebut, it’s Vidal’s emphasis on Lincoln’s amenability to colonizing freed blacks to Africa. This subject remains a matter of some contention, but it’s clear that Lincoln entertained the idea as late as 1862, when he tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade several black leaders to endorse the project. By most accounts, Lincoln thereafter gave up the idea as impractical and undesirable; a handful of sources, including General Benjamin Butler (admittedly not a wholly reliable, considering his clashes with Lincoln and penchant for self-aggrandizement), claimed that Lincoln was still flirting with colonization at the time of his death.
Anyway, Current is deeply incensed that Vidal even entertains the idea. Not only does he dismiss Butler as a source, a not-unreasonable assertion, but claims that Vidal “displays his talent for distortion and deception most egregiously when dealing with Lincoln’s attitudes and policies with respect to blacks.” In inimitable style, Vidal admits that perhaps his source was untrustworthy, after all:
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, according to one professor of history,
Stanly went to Washington intending to resign. After several talks with Lincoln, however, Stanly was satisfied. He returned to his job, but first he called at the office of James C. Welling, editor of the National Intelligencer. Welling wrote in his diary: “Mr. Stanly said that the President had stated to him that the proclamation had become a civil necessity to prevent the Radicals from openly embarrassing the government in the conduct of the war.”
So Lincoln speaks with forked tongue in this passage from Richard N. Current’s The Lincoln Nobody Knows.5 Personally, I’d not have let this agreed-upon fact sail so easily by. Wouldn’t Stanly lie to Welling, to explain his behavior? Or might Welling have misunderstood what Stanly said Lincoln said? Or, unthinkable thought, could Lincoln have lied to Stanly? Current accepts too readily a story highly discreditable to the Great Emancipator he would now have us worship in all his seamless integrity.
The main point of Vidal’s essay, amusing as it is, is twofold. First, that Current and Holtzer are invested in presenting Lincoln as a plaster saint (“Since saints do not have bowels,” Vidal sneers over Current’s bizarre obsession, “Current finds all this sacrilegious”), facts and nuances be damned. I have read some of Current’s work, albeit not the specific book in question, and have found him a generally reliable historian. Vidal is too dismissive of him, in this respect, but he’s certainly correct that Current’s criticisms are largely those of a pedant who’d rather quibble over trivia than consider a fictional work’s serious merits. While a novelist, Vidal demonstrates himself deeply read in the Lincoln literature and thus can’t be pushed around by a scholar thumbing through a copy of Boatner’s Civil War Dictionary.
But the main reason I wanted to highlight this exchange is Vidal’s amusing idea of the “scholar squirrel.” What is this nutty creature, who plays at being an historian mostly for the benefit, it appears, of taking others less knowledgeable on minutia to task?
How does a scholar differ from a scholar-squirrel? The squirrel is a careerist who mindlessly gathers little facts for professional reasons. I don’t in the least mind this sort of welfare for the “educated” middle class. They must live, too. But when they start working in concert to revise history to suit new political necessities, I reach for my ancient Winchester…
There is no reason why Current, master of our language though he is, should understand how a novel—even one that incorporates actual events and dialogue—is made. The historian-scholar, of course, plays god. He has his footnotes, his citations, his press clippings, his fellow scholar-squirrels to quote from. If he lacks literary talent, he then simply serves up the agreed-upon facts as if they were the Truth, and should he have a political slant—and any American schoolteacher is bound to, and most predictable it is—the result will emerge as a plaster saint, like that dead effigy of Jefferson by Dumas Malone and his legion of graduate students.
Although a novel can be told as if the author is God, often a novel is told from the point of view of one or more characters. For those of us inclined to the Jamesian stricture, a given scene ought to be observed by a single character, who can only know what he knows, which is often less than the reader. For someone with no special knowledge of—or as yet interest in—Grant, the fact that harnesses and other leather goods were sold along with saddles by the failure Grant is a matter of no interest. The true scholar-squirrel, of course, must itemize everything sold in the shop. This is the real difference between a novel and a biography. But though I tend in these books more to history than to the invented, I am still obliged to dramatize my story through someone’s consciousness. But when it comes to a great mysterious figure like Lincoln, I do not enter his mind. I only show him as those around him saw him at specific times. This rules out hindsight, which is all that a historian, by definition, has; and which people in real life, or in its imitation the novel, can never have.
This is a useful category of “scholar” to consider: the squirrel who uses history to make an ideological point, rather than to attempt a truthful record of the past. It’s probably not fair to apply it to Current, in particular, but it may well apply to Holtzer, the “caption writer” who continues churning out book after book on Lincoln like an R.L. Stine of Historians. One can certainly think of a lot of historians, or is that “historians,” who fit this description, particularly those who write overtly ideological works that are less history than diatribe.
Also, don’t pick an intellectual street fight with Gore Vidal. You will lose.