Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is one of the best-known presidents in the history of the United States so most people are familiar with the story of his life.  They know about the poverty of Lincoln’s boyhood, the prodigious strength he developed as a teen, his debate skills and presidency during the Civil War, and his tragic end.  The most common gap in most peoples’ Lincoln biography is the one during which he was a young lawyer and aspiring Whig politician – the 1830s and 1840s.  Stephen Harrigan’s novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln spans precisely this period of the young Lincoln’s life. 

The “friend” of Lincoln’s referenced in the book’s title is the fictional “Cage” Weatherby, an aspiring poet from Massachusetts who has made his way to Springfield, Illinois.  As yet unpublished, Weatherby derives his income largely from the small boardinghouse he owns in the soon-to-be state capitol.  Weatherby and Lincoln have much in common: a deep love of poetry, reaching young manhood penniless, an uneasy way with the young women of the day, and a deep desire to leave their marks on the world rather than just passing through it.  As a result, the two become fast friends almost from the moment they first meet.  And they will remain good friends until the day that Mary Todd marries Lincoln and decides that Weatherby can no longer be part of Lincoln’s life.

Even as a young lawyer, Lincoln was a man consumed by political ambition.  Already a veteran of the Indian wars, he stood out in any crowd he was a part of, and that was just as attributable to his never ending supply of funny stories as it was to his unusually tall frame.  Harrigan’s plot, though, reminds us that Lincoln and Weatherby were young men who faced, and often succumbed to, the very same temptations that all young men encounter at that point of their lives.  Lincoln has as many vulgar stories to tell his male friends in private as he has stories suitable for mixed company – and he enjoys telling them maybe even more than his audience loves hearing them.  Early on, Mr. Lincoln envisioned himself in Washington D.C. as a Whig congressman – a dream that finally came true for him.

The Abraham Lincoln of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is a young man easily smitten by a pretty face and even more easily intimidated by a woman strong enough and bold enough to take the initiative in a relationship.  He is also a man so prone to clinical depression that, on at least two occasions, romantic encounters left him so suicidal that Cage Weatherby and others placed him under literal suicide watches. 

Stephen Harrigan
But it is the portion of the book that recounts Lincoln’s months spent on the Illinois legal circuit, during which he and a small team of lawyers and judges road horses from town to town trying court cases under rather primitive conditions, that is the most memorable.  During this period, Cage Weatherby learns that Lincoln is very much a man of his time and place.  He is willing to make whatever backdoor political deals might get him closer to Washington; he is as willing to take the cases of slave owners as he is to defend escaped slaves; and he will abandon his best friend in order to keep peace at home with his wife.

Cage Weatherby, however, is the true central character of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, and he is a man who proves to be every bit as interesting as Lincoln during this period of Lincoln’s life.  Both men are busy living their “real lives” while portraying themselves to the public as something other than what they are.  Harrigan has written a coming of age novel for both men, one that fans of historical fiction will very much enjoy.

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