I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

by Jerome Charyn

(Liveright, $26.95, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

Unless you have read one of his nearly 50 books, or are a fan of French ping-pong (more about that later), you may not know of Jerome Charyn. Your loss, but understandable, because this very talented and extremely prolific author does not seem to get much media buzz.  Charyn published his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,”  in 1964. He has 30 novels, including “Johnny One-Eye” and  “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson,” three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction to his credit and  two of his memoirs got the coveted New York Times Book of the Year designation. He lives in New York and Paris, where he was named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and was a Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris through 2009. And in France, he was a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players there. The novelist Don DeLillo called” Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins,” Charyn’s book on table tennis, “The Sun Also Rises” of ping-pong.”

What is this book about?

In “I Am Abraham,” a fictional memoir, Charyn takes on the daunting task of speaking in the voice of our revered 16th president, and by all accounts, does it smashingly well. If you have ever wished you could hear Lincoln speak about the devastating Civil War, this is as close as you could wish to come. The book, written in the first person, chronicles Lincoln’s personal history from Illinois to that fateful night at a Washington theater, blending humor and tragedy. Charyn uses real characters and invents others: all equally fascinating. Using the rhythms and idioms of 19th century speech, Charyn does not so much mimic Lincoln’s speaking style as inhabit it, drawing on letters and speeches the president wrote. This is historical fiction at its finest.

Why you’ll like it:

Innovative and bold by its very nature, this book is also brave: it is no easy feat to put yourself in the mind and heart of one of history’s most famous and controversial men and make it sound authentic. Charyn has the chops to bring off this literary impersonation, and in so doing, he gives us tremendous insight into the president who saved the Union, albeit at great cost (and with conflicts that persist to this day). Lincoln’s political brilliance, moral wisdom, sense of humor and feeling about his personal tragedies are all here, thanks to Charyn’s inventive abilities.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review: “Charyn certainly manages to bring the legendary 16th president down to earth; most readers will find it hard to view the Great Emancipator the same way after reading this fictional memoir’s description of him masturbating as a young man. But the novel also succeeds in making the legendary figure more accessible, using Lincoln’s lifelong battle with depression as an avenue through which to explore his life and perspective. The opening section presents the president’s memories of his last night, ending as Booth’s bullet shatters his skull, and then flashing back to 1831 as the young Lincoln begins life in New Salem, Ill. The rest of the book traces his well-known life arc, from prairie lawyer to U.S. president. This is a warts-and-all portrayal, not only of the lead, but of central supporting figures, most especially his tempestuous and difficult wife, Mary. Charyn has managed to craft a fictional autobiography that rings emotionally true.”

“If all historians—or any historian—could write with the magnetic charm and authoritative verve of Jerome Charyn, American readers would be fighting over the privilege of learning about their past. They can learn much from this book—an audacious, first-person novel that makes Lincoln the most irresistible figure of a compelling story singed with equal doses of comedy, tragedy, and moral grandeur. Here is something beyond history and approaching art,” says Harold Holzer, chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

Library Journal says:  “It should be no surprise that a historical novel by Charyn captures the attention. A deeply lyrical writer, he has proven himself adept at reworking America’s historical legends . . . Reworking is the key to Charyn’s approach. His concern is not so much what has been written down about Abraham Lincoln’s actions as the inner life and tensions of his famous protagonist: his depression, his deep feelings of unworthiness, but also his compassion for the downtrodden. This re-creation of Lincoln’s life is as much domestic history as public, with Lincoln contraposed to his fiery but deeply troubled wife and his three very different sons. Charyn’s Lincoln is a real man, not a stick-figure saint. He lusts for Mary Todd in language that is earthy, at times even bawdy. But Lincoln was also, and always, a man who strove to listen to the better angels of his nature, and this, too, comes out in Charyn’s book. VERDICT This is another fine novel by a very good author who has a proven track record of attracting readers of all persuasions. What’s not to like?”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Charyn . . . has Abraham Lincoln narrating his own story, beginning a few moments before the assassination and then telling the highlights of his life through a series of flashbacks. Lincoln is presented here literally warts and all, from his rough-and-tumble upbringing to his early career as a lawyer and Illinois state legislator to the burden of being president. His first serious relationship is with Ann Rutledge, with whom Lincoln is very much in love (though Charyn endows him with a 21st-century sexual consciousness that at times seems rather jarring). After Ann’s death, Lincoln develops a case of the “blue unholies,” a melancholy that haunts him for much of the rest of his life. He next takes up with the vivacious and demanding Mary Todd, who comes across as more of a burden than a helpmeet, especially when they get to the White House, where she is unadmiringly styled the “Lady President.” Mary is preoccupied with redecorating, flirting and, later, with deeply grieving the loss of her son, Willie. The portrait of Lincoln readers get is characterized by emotional and psychological complexity, for he’s a reluctant candidate, a caustic commander in chief and, at times (understandably), a diffident husband. He, too, is deeply saddened by the death of his son as well as by the deep social divisions he seems unable to bridge. Charyn skillfully weaves bits of speeches and a large cast of characters, most of them drawn from Lincoln’s life, into his intricate portrait of the 16th president.”

“Jerome Charyn [is] a fearless writer… Brave and brazen… The book is daringly imagined, written with exuberance, and with a remarkable command of historical detail. It gives us a human Lincoln besieged by vividly drawn enemies and allies… Placing Lincoln within the web of ordinary and sometimes petty human relations is no small achievement,” says the New York Review of Books

When is it available?

This book is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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