Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Alternative World in Stephen Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

One of the most popular leitmotifs of the what-if alternative historical novel focuses on delineating an imaginary world had the Nazis won the Second World War. Two outstanding examples are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick set in 1962 America and Fatherland by Robert Harris set in 1964 Germany. In the former, most of America is living under fascist rule, most American Jews have been murdered and the main characters gladly embrace the new reality. (A compelling subplot is about a banned underground novel reputedly written by an individual in a fortified castle who writes an alternative history about the Nazis losing the war. Readers are entertained but consider it farfetched.) In the latter, the Nazis, who are in perpetual war with the hordes of Russia are preparing for the visit of the American President, Joseph Kennedy, and an agreement that would signal a rapprochement between the world’s pre-eminent powers.

Another leitmotif is how would America be different had the South won the Civil War. One gem for this alternative history is the 1953 publication of Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. In the novel’s first sentence, the narrator states, “Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1921.” It must be one of the strangest sentences in American fiction. But it makes sense when the novel is mainly set during the first half of the twentieth century. Moore’s conjured America is one of bleakness and of hopelessness with a hobbled economy and heightened social tensions. Confederate citizens rule over Northern subjects. Blacks, Asians and Jews are pressured to emigrate and indentured servitude prevails in the industrial centres. The major character, Hodge Backmaker, is fortunate to spend seven years living in a communal haven of creative people who would have been regarded as pariahs in the coarser society beyond its confines. As a history scholar specializing in the “War of Southrun Independence,” Hodge is given the opportunity to time travel to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the decisive battle that, in this alternative history, ensured southern victory. He is, however, warned that he must remain an observer. Inadvertently, he does become involved and with one altercation he wipes out his own personal history and changes the course of the war. Unlike the protagonist school teacher in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (Simon & Schuster, 2011), who is able to retreat from 1963 America to the present, Ward’s time traveller cannot return to his former life living with his wife and fellow intellectuals. He is destined to live out his life in an America that resembles the historical reality of the late nineteenth century but one wherein he feels estranged and is regarded as an oddball eccentric.

author Stephen L. Carter

With the caveat that The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) is not about the south winning the Civil War, it does follow in the tradition of writing an alternative history. Its premise is that Lincoln recovered from his wounds inflicted by John Wilkes Booth but his vice president Andrew Johnson did not. Failing to become a martyr, Lincoln becomes politically vulnerable. Like his weaker successor, the historical Johnson, Carter’s Lincoln becomes the target for an impeachment trial led by the Radical Republicans who contend that the “tyrant” did not sufficiently protect the freedmen and that he intended to usurp the powers of Congress. As he did with his previous four novels, Carter combines a murder mystery, a spy thriller and a courtroom drama. Part of the trial itself adheres to the historical record of Johnson’s impeachment trial, and sometimes the novel feels weighted down by the rules of evidence and the minutia of the court proceedings that Carter as a Yale law professor intimately knows.

What Carter does well is to portray the seething cauldron of hatred in Washington City as it was called in 1867. Lincoln is not only reviled by Confederate sympathizers but by the abolitionist wing of his own party and by Unionists who were appalled by his actions during the war: his arrest of political opponents, the closure of newspapers critical of him and the suspension of habeas corpus. (Carter does not need to rely on alternative history in what Lincoln did during the war.) In an echo of contemporary Washington, any expression of compromise is considered treasonous. On the streets where assassins, spies, conspirators and prostitutes abound, savage violence occurs. When a police officer attempts to pursue the truth about the murder of one of the lawyers in Lincoln’s defense team, he is transferred. In the imaginary impeachment trial, there is at least the appearance of due process; outside its hallowed halls, hired killers and agents of the state ensure that no trial of any suspects will ever occur. In this smoke and mirrors world of plots and counterplots, it is easier to fabricate an official version of violent events.

Abraham Lincoln after his Second Inaugural in 1865.
Carter creates a fictional heroine to bridge these two worlds and explore relations between the races, a young, fearless and exceptionally intelligent Afro-American woman Abigail Canner. As a recent graduate of Oberlin College, Abigail is hired as a clerk for a law firm that is defending the president. Despite the raw racism and condescension she encounters, her chutzpah and brilliance enable her to conduct an unofficial investigation, sleuth around and untangle the webs of a complex conspiracy to unseat the President – and in an (implausible?) private audience to reveal the details to an impressed Lincoln. Whenever Abigail is engaged, the novel vibrates with intensity, particularly the scenes between her and a white fellow clerk. Yet despite Carter’s spirited defense in his Author’s Note of such a strong Afro-American woman excelling in mid nineteenth-century America, a skeptical reader might consider Abigail’s exceptional skills – she is smarter than any of the lawyers and politicians – as the most salient feature of his counter history because it is hard to imagine such an extraordinary woman in the real world of post-bellum Washington.

The focus for all the acrimony and skullduggery is of course Lincoln himself. One of the pleasures of reading this novel is the associations that can be made after having seen the film Lincoln. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s masterful creation, Carter’s Lincoln appears only sporadically. Initially, he is deceptively rustic and somewhat distant, an artifice to conceal his foxiness and full awareness of what was happening. In the film, he must reconcile the tension between ending the war, but not too soon, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. He feels little compunction about the imperative of securing votes indirectly by cajoling, threats and bribery or keeping a Southern delegation ready to talk peace waiting until the Amendment to abolish slavery is passed. Carter’s Lincoln is more divided. As one character recalls, “The more time he spent in his company, the more he saw a deeply conflicted man, certain that his course was right, uncertain that the means required to achieve it were honorable.” As difficult as it was for the historical Lincoln to preserve the Union and win the war, perhaps more daunting would have been the resolution of the huge problems arising out of Reconstruction had he lived.

Carter’s surprising yet disappointing conclusion arguably undercuts the novel’s premise that it is an alternative history. Unlike the novels discussed above, we never acquire a convincing sense of what an alternative America would look like over a significant period of time. Carter’s novel resembles Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America which could be viewed more as a historical detour since the election of the one-term quasi-fascist, Charles Lindbergh, does not provide sufficient time for America to become a full-throttled fascist state before Roosevelt is re-elected in 1944. Nonetheless, the portrait of a wily but all-too-human Lincoln fighting for his political life in The Impeachment is a fine complement to the film Lincoln. What lingers most in the mind, however, is Carter’s depiction of black Washington, most memorably the lives of Abigail Canner’s family members. A more compelling novel could have been fashioned from this lineament with the historical actors merely serving as a backdrop. But such a novel would not have been alternative history.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, will be launched on Thursday March 7 between 6 PM and 8 PM at Ben McNally Books 366 Bay St. (Richmond and Bay) in Toronto.

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