I recently read I Am Abraham, my fourth Jerome Charyn novel, to review it as part of the author’s current blog tour. When I first read Charyn several years ago I found that I needed to acquire a taste for his writing style. It took some effort but it was worth persevering. By the time I finished The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, I was absolutely delighted by it and I haven’t needed persuasion to read Charyn’s novels ever since.
So, now you know that I enjoy Charyn’s work, let’s turn our attention to his most recent novel, I Am Abraham. This is how the publisher summarises it:
“Narrated in Lincoln’s own voice, the tragicomic I Am Abraham promises to be the masterwork of Jerome Charyn’s remarkable career.
Since publishing his first novel in 1964, Jerome Charyn has established himself as one of the most inventive and prolific literary chroniclers of the American landscape. Here in I Am Abraham, Charyn returns with an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War. Narrated boldly in the first person, I Am Abraham effortlessly mixes humour with Shakespearean-like tragedy, in the process creating an achingly human portrait of our sixteenth President.
Tracing the historic arc of Lincoln’s life from his picaresque days as a gangly young lawyer in Sangamon County, Illinois, through his improbable marriage to Kentucky belle Mary Todd, to his 1865 visit to war-shattered Richmond only days before his assassination, I Am Abraham hews closely to the familiar Lincoln saga. Charyn seamlessly braids historical figures such as Mrs. Keckley—the former slave, who became the First Lady’s dressmaker and confidante—and the swaggering and almost treasonous General McClellan with a parade of fictional extras: wise-cracking knaves, conniving hangers-on, speculators, scheming Senators, and even patriotic whores.
We encounter the renegade Rebel soldiers who flanked the District in tattered uniforms and cardboard shoes, living in a no-man’s-land between North and South; as well as the Northern deserters, young men all, with sunken, hollowed faces, sitting in the punishing sun, waiting for their rendezvous with the firing squad; and the black recruits, whom Lincoln’s own generals wanted to discard, but who play a pivotal role in winning the Civil War. At the center of this grand pageant is always Lincoln himself, clad in a green shawl, pacing the White House halls in the darkest hours of America’s bloodiest war.
Using biblically cadenced prose, cornpone nineteenth-century humour, and Lincoln’s own letters and speeches, Charyn concocts a profoundly moral but troubled commander-in-chief, whose relationship with his Ophelia-like wife and sons—Robert, Willie, and Tad—is explored with penetrating psychological insight and the utmost compassion. Seized by melancholy and imbued with an unfaltering sense of human worth, Charyn’s President Lincoln comes to vibrant, three-dimensional life in a haunting portrait we have rarely seen in historical fiction.”
I found similarities and differences between this book and Charyn’s previous work. In this novel the author immediately lets us know where the story is going, opening with the final minutes of Lincoln’s life at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. unlike The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson where the story follows Dickinson’s life in chronological order and her dying thoughts are the last words we read. Charyn has squeezed a lot into I Am Abraham and examines important events in the president’s life in considerable detail. It’s an imaginative re-telling of Lincoln’s life. A knowledge of the American Civil War period would help the reader follow the narrative but it’s not essential as the author is more interested in producing a character study of Lincoln than an historical account of his life. Despite this, Charyn values historical accuracy though he has his own way of interpreting it. When I interviewed him about his novel, Johnny One-Eye for my blog he said, “Fiction often has a greater truth than most historical texts. I think of Napoleon, and I read War and Peace to get a sense of that particular time. Novelists see history as story. We’re not burdened by ‘inaccuracies’.”
Considering the book’s title it’s not surprising that its focus is the main character, Abraham Lincoln. As in Charyn’s fictional account of Emily Dickinson’s life, Lincoln is portrayed as Charyn imagines him. The author explores Lincoln’s thoughts, feelings, and desires to illuminate the motives behind his actions. In his own distinct way, often using whimsical scenes and lyrical speech, Charyn creates his character. The writing is very much Charyn’s style. Unfortunately I felt the style is more believable when applied to Dickinson than Lincoln. I have a completely different impression of Lincoln than Charyn does and the character’s voice didn’t ring true for me. I was captivated by the manner in which the story was told but I didn’t believe I was hearing Lincoln telling it. I think it might have worked better if another character had narrated it.
The author puts as much effort into place as he does people and the settings, from rural Illinois to the White House, are vividly rendered. The images they conjure in your imagination aren’t always pleasant as Charyn has an acute eye for the sordid and seedy aspects of life but the places come alive. I felt like I had been transported into America’s past, a very different world from my own.
I Am Abraham isn’t an easy read. It’s long at nearly 500 pages and it’s complex but it’s an interesting interpretation of Lincoln and his era. Whether the author has Lincoln’s voice right or not, it’s a book that will entertain readers and possibly make them reconsider what they think about Lincoln, the man. Historical fiction lovers will find this book a new and unique look at the American president and the Civil War era.
About Jerome Charyn: He is an award-winning American author. With nearly 50 published works, Charyn has earned a long-standing reputation as an inventive and prolific chronicler of real and imagined American life. Since the 1964 release of Charyn’s first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009. In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France. Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.