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The author of the best-selling The Gates of the Alamo now gives us a galvanizing portrait of Abraham Lincoln during a crucially revealing period of his life, the early Springfield years, when he risked both his sanity and his ethical bearings as he searched for the great destiny he believed to be his.
It is Illinois in the 1830s and 1840s. Abraham Lincoln is a circuit-riding lawyer, a member of the state legislature, a man of almost ungovernable ambition. To his friends he is also a beloved figure, by turns charmingly awkward and mesmerizingly self-possessed—a man of whom they, too, expect big things. Among his friends and political colleagues are Joshua Speed, William Herndon, Stephen Douglas, and many others who have come to the exploding frontier town of Springfield to find their futures.
It is through another friend, a fictional poet, Cage Weatherby, that we will come to know Lincoln in his twenties and thirties, as a series of formative, surprising incidents unfolds—his service in the Black Hawk War, his participation in a poetry-writing society, a challenge to a duel that begins as a farce but quickly rises to lethal potential . . . Cage both admires and clashes with Lincoln, sometimes questioning his legal ethics and his cautious stance on slavery. But he is by Lincoln’s side as Lincoln slips back and forth between high spirits and soul-hollowing sadness and depression, and as he recovers from a disastrous courtship of one woman to marry the beautiful, capricious, politically savvy Mary Todd. It is Mary who will bring stability to Lincoln’s life, but who will also trigger a conflict that sends the two men on very different paths into the future.
Historically accurate, rich in character, filled with the juice and dreams and raw ambitions of Americans on the make in an early frontier city, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is a revelatory and moving portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in his young manhood. It is a close-up, involving experience, the sort of vibrant glimpse beneath the veneer of history that only the very best fiction can provide.
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STEPHEN HARRIGAN is the author of nine previous books, including The New York Times best seller The Gates of the Alamo and Remember Ben Clayton, which among other awards won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians for best historical novel. He is also a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and a screenwriter who has written many movies for television. He lives in Austin, Texas.
The line to see the president moved slowly, stuporously, six citizens abreast. It began somewhere in the disordered crowd that had jammed the city square and inched past uniformed guards to the wrought-iron fence surrounding the statehouse. Micajah Weatherby shuffled forward with the rest, thinking he might be greeted at any moment by a friendly, astonished voice. “Cage Weatherby! By God, you’re in Springfield? What are you doing waiting in this line with everyone else? Come with me at once. Why, of all the people he wouldn’t want standing out here in the heat!”
He doubted, though, that anyone would recognize him. He was fifty-four, rather portly now, though only a few years earlier he had been as athletically trim as when he and the rest of the young blades of Springfield used to play fives against the brick walls behind the square. But the violent loss of his left arm had given him a disinclination to take exercise at a time when the driving purpose of his middle-aged body was to accumulate mass. So he was incognito: forgotten, fat, one-armed, his face hidden beneath the bushy whiskers of the age.
The odds were not certain that he would recognize anyone in return: all those once familiar faces, clean-shaven in the long ago but now doubtless also obscured by beards, and fleshy or slack with age. His old friends, unseen for so many years, would have missing teeth, thinning hair, stooped and tired stances. Perhaps one of them was standing within arm’s reach—Joshua Speed, or Ashbel Merritt. No, if they were here they would not be waiting in line with all the barbers and storekeepers and mechanics. They would be inside already, in a special room set aside for them.
Although they began letting the crowd in at midmorning, it was noon before Cage was finally inside the statehouse and upstairs in the Hall of Representatives. There the line that had been moving so sluggishly was parted in two by the guards and suddenly accelerated, flowing around the catafalque with a disorienting swiftness. Perhaps that was for the best, because when Cage finally saw the face in the coffin he had to fight back the instinct to shut his eyes and shove his way back down the stairs.
He was on more familiar terms with death than most, even in those terrible years. But this was Abraham Lincoln, and this was death in a new register: more profound, more final, as bewildering to him as if he were encountering the unthinkable phenomenon for the first time. It was strangely silent in that venerable public place. Everyone was too stunned to weep. Nevertheless, he could feel his composure eroding. He was glad the procession had not been any slower. He did not want to look at that face a moment more.
He was too unsettled to see it clearly. He just had the impression of something truly and obscenely dead, dead for weeks and now, for all the grim majesty of the surroundings, cheaply and shockingly displayed. It was obvious the body should have been long underground. The banks of flowers and evergreens were meant to hide the scent of putrefaction, but they only made it more obvious. His face—could that really be, have been, his friend Lincoln’s face?—was a moldering mess, collapsing in on itself beneath a glaring white shell of chalk and rouge.
When Cage looked up from the coffin he met the eyes of some poor girl from the Philharmonic Society. She looked stricken as she lent her voice to the choir’s soothing hymn, trying to keep from fainting in the crowded, close room, the windows draped, the gas lit, the mourners passing by in their unending multitudes, glancing down one by one with the same expression of solemn horror. He felt sorry for her, imprisoned in this hothouse with a corroding corpse, under the press of an entire nation’s sorrow.
He filed out with the others beneath various mottoes that had been put up among the greenery and the black droopers. “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Saviour.” “Though dead, he yet speaketh.” He made his way downstairs through the south door and into the blessed May air, where the smell of the lilac blossoms was unforced and no longer in service as a fragrant assault on decay. The whole square, the whole city, was covered in black. The massive columns of the county courthouse across Sixth Street had been turned into funereal barber poles with their swirling bands of black and white.
The people who were not in line to see the body, or who were not standing about aimlessly on the streets, were walking en masse from one place to the next where Lincoln had lived, where he had worked, to see the things that his now-sacred hands had touched. Cage walked with them, just another stranger in town, another grieving curious tourist, and found himself at the house at Eighth and Jackson that Lincoln and Mary had bought back in the forties, not long before they had mostly vanished from his life. The house had only one story back then. It had soon enough been turned into a capacious two-level dwelling of a prosperous man of the law. Cage had never seen it from the inside—never invited, thanks to Mary.
The people who lived in the house now had opened it up to the curious. Cage reckoned they had no choice. If the doors had not been open the crowds would have taken them off their hinges and carted them away. As it was, those who were not lined up at the front door to see the rooms were busy plucking blades of grass and blossoms from the garden bed, and there were even children scraping paint chips off the walls to take home as holy relics. The house paint was a pale brown, which mixed queasily with the black curtains and valances.
His own thoughts were as darkly shrouded as Lincoln’s house. After many years away he had come back to the raw political boomtown—grown now into an almost unrecognizable city—that had been his home as a young man. But there was no sense of nostalgia, no warm ache of times past and lives flown. He had done his best to keep his mind trained forward, to stay ahead of the hypo, but today he sensed a collapsing darkness, a black thing pawing at his mind. He wondered: Is this what it had been like for Abraham Lincoln? Was this the sort of anguish he experienced every time his smile faded and he disappeared into that melancholic stillness of his?
By a freakish good fortune in timing he had managed to get a room at the Chenery House; otherwise he would have had to pay for the privilege of sleeping on the floor in some crowded boardinghouse, or bivouacking in a tent on the outskirts of town. He was glad he had the room to return to now, someplace to go to purge himself of this bile of despair. He made his way against the crowds surging toward the Lincoln house and walked back to the center of town, wiping away the sweat that poured down onto his face from the tight brim of his hat. Once in his room he took off his coat and collar and threw himself on the bed. When he woke, it was hours later, almost dusk. It took him another half hour to shake off the stupefaction of emerging from such a fierce nap.
He went down into the crowded lobby to read the papers, disturbingly avid for every detail of the assassination and how it had unfolded. He noticed that even the opposition papers were still publishing “Breaking Through the Ice,” the poem he had written in one sitting in a fury the night of Lincoln’s murder. He had had no thought of trying to rekindle his career with it. Writing the poem had been as raw an act of grief as letting out a wail. But he had shown it to a friend at the Chicago Tribune and it had come out the next day on the front page, and was immediately reprinted in papers across the country, then issued as broadsides and handbills and read aloud on courthouse steps and even, he was told, set to music. He did not think it his best work, but it was unguarded and almost untouched by the vanity and yearning for literary immortality that had driven him in the old days. That his name was now famous for one spontaneous poem, and not for the product of years of passionate, concentrated labor, was an irony easily absorbed when so much shattering change was in the air.
Seward would survive being knifed in his bed, he learned from the pages of The Illinois State Journal. Harrold’s trial was under way, and the captors of Booth were quarreling among themselves about the division of the reward. The papers were declaring that as many as three hundred people had been part of the conspiracy, but he rather doubted that. And then there was, as always, the war itself to read about. Richmond had fallen a month ago, and according to the latest dispatch from New Orleans Kirby Smith had surrendered, but who could be sure it would not all flare up again, or degenerate into something that was no longer a defined war but a series of dirty reprisals and counter-reprisals that would last for generations and destroy the Union after all?
He had missed his lunch. It was a good sign that he was hungry. The shock and sadness of Lincoln’s death were still acute but the conviction that existence itself was a cruel and static thing had evaporated in the afternoon’s sleep.
There was a long wait for a table in the hotel’s dining room, and every other eating place and tavern in town was full as well. He went instead to the new Masonic Lodge, whose doors had been thrown open to the public and tables set up to create a temporary dining hall. It was an efficient operation and the line moved quickly. He did not mind, on this evening, sharing a table with strangers. Grief, like danger, excites the herding impulse.
He sat with a family from Alton. The father was a widowed manager of a lard-oil factory who had brought his three daughters and his late wife’s blind mother to Springfield for the funeral. The man had seen Cage struggling to balance his cup and plate of stew with one hand and had rushed to his aid and ushered him to the table his family had claimed in the corner of the lodge. They wanted to know if he was a resident of Springfield and, if so, if he had known the president. Cage told them he had not lived in the city for almost twenty years, which was true, and that though he had seen Mr. Lincoln back then walking through the streets from time to time he had never known him or even been introduced to him, which was blatantly false. He excused himself of the lie readily enough. He told himself he did not want to aggrandize himself in this somber moment by impressing listeners with his intimate stories of long ago. That was true, but the starker truth was that it would hurt to tell those stories, to remember too acutely.
The youngest of the girls, ten or eleven years old, kept glancing at his empty sleeve. He was an old man to her and she could not have imagined that he might have lost his arm actually fighting in the war. Her father wanted to talk about Old Bob, the president’s suddenly famous horse, whom the family had admired that afternoon as the animal posed for photographers outside the Lincoln home. They had also been among the first in line that morning at the statehouse. The blind mother-in-law said that although she could not see the president she had felt his spirit as she moved past the coffin. She experienced this as an unexpected flood of gladness and peace.
The father was a nervous, plan-ahead sort of man. He wanted to know Cage’s thoughts about the funeral tomorrow. Where was the best place to form up so that they wouldn’t be at the trailing edge of the procession? Would there be such a crush of people that the cemetery would not hold them all? Was it true that Mrs. Lincoln was still back in Washington, too grief-stricken to even attend her own husband’s funeral?
He offered what insights he could, but was already thinking he might miss the funeral himself, leave town on the first train to Chicago. He had seen enough history firsthand. He did not need to be crowding in to see more. And there was a kind of sting in knowing he would not be at the front of the procession, not walking beside the hearse as a pallbearer. Old Bob now had more of a claim to Lincoln than he did.
After dinner, out on the streets at night, he felt foolishly alone. He was homesick for San Francisco, which he had not seen now in almost four years: the sea lions barking on the wharves, the moist, seeping fog; sights and sensations that had been unimaginable to him as a young man living on the Illinois prairie. Now Springfield itself was almost as foreign as California had once been. The streets were brightly lit with gas lamps and planked over—no more muddy hog holes to swallow up unwary pedestrians. All the buildings on the square were of brick. Most of the wooden buildings were gone, including the Palatine, the lodging house he had once owned. Chicken Row had burned down in a fire. In its place were stalwart new structures housing jewelry stores and haberdashers. There was a new governor’s mansion, new halls and bank buildings, a new market house. The people promenading along the sidewalks tonight on their Abraham Lincoln memorial tour, buying slices of pie and card photographs of the Lincolns’ dog from opportunistic vendors, were not just strangers to him but proof of his own ghostly irrelevance.
He walked south to Aristocracy Hill, where Ninian Edwards’s grand house still stood, looking much the same as it had when he and the other ambitious young men of Springfield had congregated there for hops and balls and windy political talk, arrogant enough to believe that any room that held them was the staging ground of their futures. Those futures were now revealed—certainly Abraham Lincoln’s was. He was venerably dead now, sealed already within a tomb of myth. Would anyone ever really believe he had once been young—young and confused and desperate for success?
As for Cage Weatherby, his future appeared to him on this bleak night to be just a listless pageant of increasing obscurity and age.
After another hour of wandering in the warm May darkness he walked back through the square on the way to his hotel and stopped on the corner of Washington and Fifth, remembering. Of course: this was where Speed’s store had been. But it was not here anymore. It had been demolished or burned down and then swallowed up by another modern brick row....
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