Stephen Har­ri­gan’s ‘Friend’ de­liv­ers a very hu­man Lin­coln

Chicago Sun-Times - - BOOKS - Au­thor Stephen Har­ri­gan

It’s easy some­times to for­get that our he­roes are hu­man — es­pe­cially, as is the case with Abra­ham Lin­coln — when we build mag­nif­i­cent mon­u­ments to their mem­ory, where the at­ti­tude is stead­fast and fixed in mar­ble, with all faults and blem­ishes smoothed over.

Thank au­thor Stephen Har­ri­gan, then, for A Friend of Mr. Lin­coln (Knopf, 411 pp., eeeg out of four), an emo­tion­ally rich and exquisitely poignant work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion that breathes in­tri­cate life back into the 16th pres­i­dent of the United States.

In a set­ting of Spring­field, Ill., in the 1830s and 1840s — a fron­tier town bustling with pos­si­bil­i­ties and striv­ing, political men — we are re­minded that Lin­coln was among the most am­bi­tious, cun­ning and com­pli­cated of them all.

Har­ri­gan ( The Gates of the Alamo, Re­mem­ber Ben Clay­ton) takes the mea­sure of the great man through the eyes of Cage Weatherby, a fic­tional poet who first meets Lin­coln dur­ing the Black Hawk War of 1832.

Har­ri­gan mas­ter­fully im­merses read­ers in the story, the era, its sen­si­bil­i­ties and its char­ac­ters — real and imag­ined — by bal­anc­ing his­tor­i­cal fact with in­tu­itive in­ven­tion and a lan­guage that some­how splits the dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now.

“He was not as freak­ishly re­mark­able in his ap­pear­ance as it would later be­come fash­ion­able to re­call,” says Weatherby, tak­ing Lin­coln in for the first time and adding, “Lin­coln was exquisitely self-con­scious, thought he was ugly, and later reck­oned he had no choice but to pro­mote him­self as such.”

The imag­ined friend­ship be­gins with a hand­shake and a “plain­tive note of hu­man com­rade­ship” and ex­tends through the highs and lows of Lin­coln’s for­ma­tive years as a lawyer and politi­cian.

Har­ri­gan seam­lessly weaves Weatherby into the fab­ric of Lin­coln’s life along with real-life friends and col­leagues such as Joshua Speed, Wil­liam Herndon, Stephen Dou­glas and, not least, Lin­coln’s fu­ture wife, Mary Todd. To Weatherby, Lin­coln seems “like a man who des­per­ately wanted to be bet­ter than theworld would ever pos­si­bly let him be.” (But in his darker mo­ments, an­other friend says, “he’s a mys­tery to us and to the log­i­cal mind.”)

Though ad­mir­ing, Weatherby is no syco­phant. He is at Lin­coln’s side as friend and ad­viser — through a calami­tous courtship, a nar­rowly averted duel, se­vere bouts of de­pres­sion and Lin­coln’s deeply con­flicted feel­ings about Mary. But Weatherby also chal­lenges Lin­coln, ques­tion­ing his ethics, his tac­tics and his ex­pe­di­ently ten­ta­tive stance on slav­ery.

De­spite the fact that the char­ac­ter is Har­ri­gan’s cre­ation, there’s never a mo­ment when Weatherby is any less cen­tral, less vi­tal or less real than the ex­ceed­ingly hu­man Lin­coln. So when the two men come to an im­passe, one that threat­ens to di­vide them for­ever, it is no less painful know­ing that Weatherby never ex­isted.

It’s a trib­ute to the power of fic­tion, and Har­ri­gan’s skill, that Weather by pro­vides a more au­then­tic view of Lin­coln than we had be­fore.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

James En­drst

KENNY BRAUN

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