Vidal’s Lincoln

Gore Vidal was born on this day in 1925. Vidal has almost as many books as birthdays, but at the core of his work in fiction is the Narratives of Empire series, which displays his contentious approach to American history. This is nowhere more true than in Lincoln (1984), intended as a “counterbalance to the folksy figure so beloved” by writers like Robert E. Sherwood, whose Pulitzer-winning play Abe Lincoln in Illinois opened on this day in 1938.

Sherwood’s Lincoln is pretty much that of Carl Sandburg, whose two-volume biography of Lincoln shaped the popular view of the president for midcentury America (and won its own Pulitzer). Sandburg’s preface to the book edition of Sherwood’s play notes “that it carries some shine of the American dream, that it delivers great themes of human wit, behavior and freedom” and captures Lincoln’s “somber broodings over the Family of Man on the earth and the strange prices of devotion and discipline paid for the getting and keeping of freedom.”
Vidal’s Lincoln is a darker, more conflicted man, even in his sexuality. The following is excerpted from Vidal’s “Was Lincoln Bisexual,” his Vanity Fair review of C. A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2005):

The young Lincoln had a love affair with a handsome youth and store-owner, Joshua Speed, in Springfield, Illinois. They shared a bed for four years, not necessarily, in those frontier days, the sign of a smoking gun—only messy male housekeeping. Nevertheless, four years is a long time to be fairly uncomfortable. The gun proved to be the letters that passed between them when Joshua went home to Kentucky to marry, while Lincoln was readying himself for marriage in Springfield. Each youth betrays considerable anxiety about the wedding night ahead. Can they hack it? To Sandburg’s credit he picked up on this (who could not after reading the letters?), but, first time around, I skipped his poetical comments on Lincoln’s “streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at