The Blue Unholies

A literary alchemist assumes the presidency.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2014
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© Bettmann / Corbis

I do believe that Lincoln’s relationship with his mother was profound. He loved his mother deeply. We know he didn’t get along with his father, and that he had a lot of problems with his father.

The house in the Bronx was filled with taxidermied, fur-bearing animals. Charyn remembers bears. Bears all around.

When he was five or six, his father took him to see Henry Fonda in Immortal Sergeant. Afterward, on the street, Mr. Charyn asked his son a terrible question. He asked him which of his parents he loved more. What answer could a child give?

His father hated slavery, and a lot of Lincoln’s reactions to slavery come from his father. His father was also a great storyteller, and many of Lincoln’s stories clearly come from what he heard from his father. His father was a carpenter, and Lincoln was a great carpenter. His father taught him how to shoot, though Lincoln didn’t like to kill animals. He once killed a wild turkey and said, “I’m never going to kill another animal again.” Then he ends up being president of the United States, and having to kill hundreds of thousands of people.

The young Mr. Lincoln wrote a poem called “The Bear Hunt.” He is also the likely author of “The Suicide’s Soliloquy,” an unsigned poem written in the form of a suicide note, in which the narrator stabs himself in the heart.

Lincoln had two major bouts of depression: one was after the death of Ann Rutledge. He couldn’t bear the thought of the rain pounding on her grave.

Many scholars suspect Rutledge was Lincoln’s great love. In Charyn’s novel, the naive Lincoln has a minor sexual brush with the young barmaid that intoxicates him and upsets the delicate cart of his tender feeling toward her. When Rutledge dies of typhoid at twenty-two, Lincoln is disconsolate.

The second major attack, Charyn says, came when Lincoln broke off his engagement to Mary Todd, beside whose aristocratic majesty Lincoln felt like a rawboned yokel. Charyn doesn’t buy the notion of Mary as a hellcat who only terrorized her poor husband. To the novelist, Mary is the force behind Lincoln’s rise to office, a woman of brilliance and ambition who, as First Lady, is reduced, maddeningly, to the role of White House decorator.

I think he deeply loved Mary. I think he fell in love with her right away.

At forty, Charyn went through a breakup that fairly crushed him. Anguished and guilt-stricken, the novelist lay helplessly in bed for a month, in the cold clasp of the blue unholies.

Writing a novel is a literal dying. It’s a kind of death. Because it occupies you in an absolute, total, visceral way. It’s everything or it’s nothing; there’s no in-between.

(Charyn has died approximately thirty-four times. His first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, was published fifty years ago.)

After the talk, Charyn moves to an adjoining room and sits at a long table to sign books. A bitter night has fallen on the cottage and on the cemetery at the foot of the hill, its stones lit bone-white under a nearly full moon. Behind Charyn, a large wooden checkerboard rests on a small stand, the pieces the size of hockey pucks.

A signature seeker opens a copy of I Am Abraham and asks the author about Lincoln’s literary interests.

“Lincoln read the Bible, Euclid, Shakespeare, probably Bunyan,” Charyn says, and scratches his name on the title page. “He knew Shakespeare’s plays, saw them in Washington. Macbeth was his favorite. In the Spielberg movie, he quotes Hamlet: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’ I love Hamlet. It’s really the source of everything for me. You take this murderer and turn him into a prince. He’s a murderer! He hears a ghost, he brings down a kingdom, he’s in love with his mother, he drives a girl to suicide — all out of hearing what he thinks is the voice of his father.”

It appears, says the signature seeker, that the poet of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address — and “The Bear Hunt” — had read the right authors: for Melville, too, with his damp Novembers, had read Shakespeare and the Bible.

“Melville may have read Shakespeare and the Bible,” Charyn says. “But his language really comes from the sea.”

The holy blue. Of course. The truth of it seems self-evident.

But what, then, of Lincoln? What was his sea?

Charyn considers.

“Lincoln’s poetry was deepened by the war,” he says. “His sea is the dying of the soldiers. Once the soldiers begin to die, his language deepens, and everything becomes a kind of dirge. He’s in perpetual mourning.”

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