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Review: 'The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln'

Stephen L. Carter gives the president's assassination a different outcome and recasts the tragedy as a thriller.

By Jonathan Shapiro

Special to Tribune newspapers

July 15, 2012

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The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln
A Novel

Stephen L. Carter
Alfred A. Knopf: 517 pp., $26.95


What if Abraham Lincoln had lived? What would have happened?

Stephen L. Carter's new novel suggests one answer.

"The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" recasts tragedy as thriller with the living Lincoln on trial for his political life. A bestselling author ("The Emperor of Ocean Park," "Jericho's Fall"), Carter hews to the historical record more than the reader might expect. John Wilkes Booth's motives and actions and those of his conspirators remain the same. The surgical strike against the Union's top leadership is intended to serve the Confederate cause. Only the results are changed. Secretary of State William H. Seward is attacked but clings to life (true). Vice President Andrew Johnson is targeted (true) and murdered (not true). And Lincoln hangs on.

"He had been shot on Good Friday," Carter writes, accurately; "On Easter Sunday, he had risen," half-accurately.

In the end, surviving turns out to be less of a miracle than a bad career move. Radicals in Lincoln's own party, led by Thaddeus Stevens, see the president's failure to punish the South or protect its freed slaves as akin to treason.

"[They] never thought I was the man to fight the war, and now they do not think I am the man to make the peace," Carter's Lincoln laments.

Ex-Confederates and Democrats, embittered and spoiling for revenge, continue as they had before and during the Civil War to despise Lincoln as a tyrant, imposing his will in violation of the Constitution.

Together, this coalition of the disappointed and the defeated tries to overthrow the president, not through assassination but through the political process.

Far from lauding him as a conquering hero, they accuse the president of wartime crimes for suspending habeas corpus, taking millions from the Treasury without congressional approval, declaring martial law and conspiring to overthrow Congress itself. The House votes to impeach him.

This would seem like more than enough plot for one book.

But Carter chooses to spend much of the time with his fictional heroine, Abigail Canner, 21, an Oberlin-educated black woman and aspiring attorney.

Canner is hired to assist the team of lawyers defending Lincoln in his impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate. These include, among others, "Daniel Sickles, lawyer and rake, the most elegant scoundrel of the age," Lincoln's old colleague Joshua Speed and a number of others, both real and imagined.

When one of those lawyers is found stabbed to death, along with a woman of possibly questionable morals, "outside a colored brothel," Canner is drawn into the investigation.

Soon she finds herself untangling webs of complex conspiracies involving all manner of corruption, including racial strife, family secrets, bribery and political graft. Meanwhile, the process of impeachment grinds along with Canner sitting through enough strategy sessions, delays and floor debates to please the most devoted fans of parliamentary procedural.

Forensics aside, Carter's plot is not so far-fetched.

As every AP history student probably knows, Johnson was impeached in February 1868, the trial did take place in March, it was conducted before Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase and many of the personas in Carter's novel, and their motives, by and large, were the same.

That Carter handles the material deftly is to be expected. No one can deny the audacity of his intellectual scope. A Yale Law School professor, he has produced an impressive body of academic work and an impressive amount of fiction that prove his ability to construct a compelling story.

"The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" shares many worthy attributes of his previous novels. Carter never writes down to his readers. This book presents the neglected Reconstruction era in all its moral ambiguity and disappointment, a useful reminder that the end of combat did not end the hostilities.

In Abigail Canner, a highly educated, successful member of the African American elite, the author once again features a protagonist often ignored in popular fiction.

But she is more of a type than a flesh-and-blood character. A romance between her and another legal assistant lacks credibility, not because of racial differences but because neither Abigail nor her potential mate ever achieves three dimensions. In fact, none of the characters do. Action and behavior are driven more by the needs of plot rather than by any recognizable human feeling. Even Lincoln is presented as nothing more than a collection of quirks and anecdotes, alive in these pages only because Carter keeps reminding us that he did not die.

The result feels a bit like the Civil War itself — a needlessly long, drawn-out affair. It moves from point to point with a geometric, legalistic logic. The reasoning is admirable, but the effect is numbing. An interesting premise is ground down through grim workmanship. Like required class reading, one endures rather than enjoys much of it.

Far from the first or worst effort to re-imagine Lincoln (vampire slayer, indeed), Carter is hardly original to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was worth more dead than alive.

Walt Whitman, as devout as any Lincoln worshiper, saw the "Chief Martyr's" murder as a "poetic, single, central, pictorial denouement." Reflecting on the 15th anniversary of the assassination, Whitman recognized that the murder had worked a political miracle, binding a nation ripped apart by war, providing a "cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying, than any thing in written constitution, or courts, or armies … the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people, and for its sake." Beyond the apotheosis of one extraordinary life, Lincoln's death — how and when it happened — proved the "sharp culmination [and] solution of so many bloody and angry problems."

In delaying such a denouement, Carter is not guilty of heresy but of a far more serious charge that can be leveled against a writer: He takes a great story and makes it boring.

For this there is no appeal.

Shapiro is a former federal prosecutor who writes and produces for television.