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