Homage

Gore Vidal was one of three rather important gay male writers who emerged from the wreckage of World War II (the others being Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote), and I have always enjoyed reading his work–even if it’s not page turning material; I like the way he writes and I like the way he tells his stories.

He wrote six or seven major works of fiction based in American history that tell, in their own way, a more clear-eyed vision of what American history was and how the nation developed; called the Narratives of Empire, they certainly weren’t published in order but rather, I gather, in the order that struck his fancy; he was also busy writing other things and feuding with other writers–notably Capote, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley–and he obviously had a flair for the outrageous and controversial; The City and the Pillar, a very frank and daring and sympathetic look at the experiences of one young man navigating the world as a gay man, made him so controversial he was unpublishable for a number of years; he spent the time writing mysteries under the name Edgar Box and writing screenplays. Myra Breckinridge, which undoubtedly does not hold up to modern scrutiny and eyes; the book was clearly intended as satire, examining societal gender constructs and views on sexuality as well as the role of women. I read it for the first time maybe ten years ago, and it struck me as quaint; an artifact of a time certainly less enlightened, but trying to head for the light. (It may be worth a reread.) He also wrote Julian the Apostate, which I greatly enjoyed and read one year beside the pool during Saints & Sinners, back when it was in May and we used to always spend the weekend at the Olivier House on Toulouse Street.

But the Narratives of Empire began with, I think, Washington DC, followed by 1876 and later Burr; he also wrote about the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the growth of the American empire in Empire, which I have also read and greatly enjoyed. I’ve not read all the titles yet; but reading Lincoln next after Empire made the most sense to me as some of the real-life characters depicted in that book are also in Lincoln, and it’s been a very long time since I read anything about Lincoln.

Elihu B. Washburne opened his gold watch. The spidery hands shows five minutes to six.

“Wait here,” he said to the driver, who said, “How do I know you’re coming back, sir?”

At the best of times Congressman Washburne’s temper was a most unstable affair, and his sudden outbursts of rage–he could roar like a preacher anticipating hell–were much admired in his adopted state of Illinois, where constituents proudly claimed that he was the only militant teetotaller who behaved exactly like a normal person at five minutes to six, say, in the early morning of an icy winter day–of the twenty-third of February, 1861, to be exact.

“Why, you black—!” As the cry in Washburne’s throat began to go to its terrible maximum, caution, the politican’s ever-present angel, cut short the statesman’s breath. A puff of unresonated cold steam filled the space between the congressman and the Negro driver on his high seat.

Heart beating rapidly with unslaked fury, Washburne gave the driver some coins. “You are to stay here until I return, you hear me?”

Growing up with Southern parents and the so-called “Southern heritage”, Lincoln’s place in history was, to say the least, still resented. The lionization of Lincoln after his death was, in some part, made possible by his murder; there’s not telling what the judgment of history would be on him had he lived to serve out his second term. Would we revile Lincoln for the reconstruction policies he would have followed? How different would the face of our present day nation be had he lived? An enormous mythology has sprung up around Lincoln since his death; “Honest Abe the rail-splitter” is a tale told to school children to this day, or how a young girl told him to grow a beard, and so on and so forth. The Civil War has been analyzed and written about endlessly; no one person could ever hope to read and digest all the documentation that exists of the conflict, let alone all the books published centering the war. I was always interested in Lincoln–even as a child I couldn’t wrap my mind around the mentality that people claiming to be “patriotic Americans” reviled Lincoln and glorified the Confederacy; I still am unable to consider such without triggering a massive amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain–and read lots of children’s books about him, but by the time I was an adult I was no longer interested in reading further biographies of the man. I am relatively uninterested in the possibility that he may have had relationships with men; without definitive proof that will always be a theory, and let’s face it, there is more evidence (although nothing conclusive) about his predecessor James Buchanan’s sexuality than there ever will be about Lincoln’s–hence my story “The Dreadful Scott Decision” I wrote for The Faking of the President.

Lincoln’s task was to preserve the Union in the face of its collapse, and that is what he strove to do. Was secession constitutional? Lincoln didn’t think so; the Constitution did not provide for the dissolution of the Union but at the same time it stated that any rights or restrictions not granted to the federal government in the document thereby fell to the individual states. So, does that mean the states held the right to leave the union? Andrew Jackson certainly didn’t think so, since he threatened to send federal troops into South Carolina during the nullification crisis. Part of the reason I actually wanted to read this book at this time was because of the stark reminder that Lincoln’s presidency, and the Civil War, serve as proof that mollifying white supremacy and continually compromising with an angry volatile minority, never ends well. (We are seeing it again now with the old Confederate states allied with their rural midwestern states…and of course as always, the ones threatening insurrection or secession claim to be “true patriots.”

Whatever, Mary.

Lincoln serves to humanize the man, and is also equally frank about Lincoln’s own white supremacist beliefs. Is Vidal’s assertion that Lincoln wanted to take the freed slaves and colonize them into Central America or somewhere back in Africa while reimbursing the slave owners for the loss of “property” accurate? It’s not the first time I’ve heard this (never heard it in school, though) and it seems likely to me. I also liked how Vidal got the panic of what it was like to live in Washington during there war so spot on; we never think about that, or how Maryland was a slave state surrounding the district, or that slavery existed and was legal in the district itself; slaves built the White House and the Capital. We never see into Lincoln’s head or from his point of view in this book–a masterful trick of Vidal’s, who thus leaves Lincoln a mystery to the reader.

It’s a compelling narrative, and it also shows us the point of view throughout of one of the conspirators who were hanged for plotting to kill him–David Suratt–and this jumping around from points of view–either of those who admired Lincoln, hated him, or thought him incompetent–gives a more three-dimensional view of the man we have deified for the last 156 years. He was definitely smart, a master politician, and, as Vidal says in the closing paragraphs of the book–if Washington was the father of our country, Lincoln was the father of our modern country.

Highly recommended.

Nothing’s Going to Change My Love For You

It’s gloomy and gray outside my windows this morning. I slept late–we stayed up late watching Unbelievable, which is so fantastic, and the performances of Merritt Weaver and Toni Collette are amazing–and a little later on I must run out to pick up some prescriptions and the mail. I’m still a bit groggy this morning as I sip my first cup of coffee, so here’s hoping the next cup or two will clear the cobwebs inside my brain and get me going.

I was terribly lazy (again) yesterday; I did get the car serviced (if you’re going to buy a Honda in the New Orleans area, you cannot go wrong with Superior Honda on the West Bank), after which I made groceries, hit the Sonic, and drove back across the river. I did the laundry (still not finished) and started cleaning and organizing, but also got sucked into a really bizarre true crime documentary on Hulu, The Turpin 13: Family Secrets Revealed, which left more questions behind in its wake than it answered. The Turpins were a family of Pentecostal Christians who eventually had thirteen children, whom they isolated and controlled in their various homes over the years, including such traumas as chaining them to their beds; starving them; not allowing them to bathe; and not allowing them to go outside during the day, in fact turning them into nocturnal beings who went to bed at 5 am, slept all day, and got up when the sun went down. It’s an interesting, albeit fascinating, story, but as I said, the couple are still awaiting trial so there aren’t any real answers there. I also watched the start of another World War II documentary of colorized footage on Netflix–very similar to the one I just watched yet different; I mean, obviously World War II documentaries are going to be similar as it’s history and history doesn’t–rarely–change.

Although watching the other colorized one, produced by the British and therefore not quite so interested in maintaining and upholding American mythology was very interesting.

I am also moving along in The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s latest, and am truly enjoying it. I like the way Whitehead writes, and I am all in for his main character, Elwood, growing up in Tallahassee during the Civil Rights era. As I do like to occasionally remind people, the Civil Rights era was my childhood; it really wasn’t that long ago. (The Second World War was also during my parents’ lifetimes, although they were too young at the time to remember any of it.) One of the many reasons to read diverse, non-white American authors is to see the country, its history, culture and society, through the eyes of the outsider, which challenges the narrative so often put forth, of American exceptionalism…and as I said earlier, those narratives also prop up and perpetuate American mythology. (This is, I think, one of the many reasons I so greatly enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods when I read it all those years ago–the concept of an American mythology, along with the identities and creation of gods through an American lens of what precisely we do worship in this country makes one start to question our collective societal values, as well as the mythology we are taught as truth.)

I’m also still reading Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street, which is quite fun and educational, as part of my continued study of New Orleans history. I still have quite a few volumes to get through, and then I plan to move on to general Louisiana history.

But as I said above, the question of what is real and what is American mythology often colors the history we read and study. Reading Robert Tallant’s work, for example, clearly shows that white supremacy colors any of his writings about New Orleans and Louisiana history, and the same goes for Harnett Kane, and probably many other historical writers of the past. And when you consider that most reference materials from our own history are often newspapers–which weren’t exactly beacons of journalistic morality and integrity in the past–one has to wonder what the actual truth of our shared American history actually is.

Which is more than a little disturbing, really.

There’s an essay or a non-fiction book on American mythology–probably not one I will ever write, but it’s something that strikes me as needing to be written; although I would imagine Howard Zinn’s works of “people’s histories” of the United States would certainly qualify. (I do highly recommend Howard Zinn; all Americans should read him, and his People’s History of the United States should be taught, if not at the lower levels than certainly in college.)

And now it is time for me to get on with my day. There are some interesting football games on today, but nothing really strikes my fancy until this evening’s LSU-Arkansas game (GEAUX TIGERS!) and so will most likely will have the television on in the background as I read, write, and clean the rest of the day.

Have a lovely Saturday,  Constant Reader.

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