- Writing Biography
The Permanent Press
176 Pages; Print, $28.00
“A feeling of failure is not the same thing as failure.”—Vernon Howard
“You are afraid of failure because you have no idea what you mean by success.”—Vernon Howard
“Remember what I said about biographies. Booksellers ought to bind up some blank pages, and then every man could write the biography he wanted or needed.”—Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln’s Billy
While it might seem odd to begin a review on a fiction book about Abraham Lincoln with an obscure and irascible mystic, the joining threaded themes of truth and self-awareness have to stand in stark contrast against the inevitable details and noise of the world. Lincoln’s Billy follows the story of a lesser figure in Lincoln’s life, his former law partner and confidante Billy Herndon, who in later years attempted a biography of Lincoln, less as the grand statesman of Union and weighty pronunciation and more the witty and melancholic yokel, prone to “hypos” of manic-depression and vulgar jokes.
Iconoclasm is a strong word, connoting high drama and even finality: “breaking of icons” conjures a raw violence and a frantic, singular gesture. Lincoln’s Billy is anything but of course. Rather we have here a slim, sophisticated novel of research, comedy and the complications of writing biography. Equal parts wink wink and artfully placed ellipses, the novel delights in trading off between finding [End Page 18] the voice of Lincoln through layers of tales and anecdotes, and watching the voice of Billy Herndon continue a long slide through frustration, failure and the muddles of reconstructing a life according to Herndon’s “truth” on paper. Whereas other anti-hagiographies love scandal for the sake of the headline shocker, the thrust of simple truth telling seems to buoy Leclair’s Herndon on a trajectory with more than a few bumps in the road (i.e. Mary Todd Lincoln) that betrays a vanity of sorts. So then, while we often lazily talk about figures of history having “feet of clay” at times it does not occur just how hard clay really gets and how hard it can be to break it apart, albeit out of love and friendship and not spite. In Lincoln’s Billy, Leclair gets this and more.
Tom Leclair’s work has always encountered biography with a fascination of failure, and Herndon’s failure at getting Lincoln right marks less some spectacular fall, but documents a labor of love that doesn’t quit. Through years of disappointment and offense at the sycophants surrounding Lincoln’s fresh corpse cause him endless vexation, we have to take Herndon’s testimony he means well as an axiom: without it, we can’t get any further at Lincoln the larger-than-life. However, on Leclair’s part this strategy is brilliant, as Herndon’s Everyman in all his Everydayness allows more trust, intimacy and historical plausibility than some other “objective” account. With someone like Lincoln, looming over the war, Emancipation, civil rights and so on, it’s very easy to forget this once was a young man who may have visited the bawdy houses of New Orleans and whose rude Illinois air at times didn’t sit well with the American establishment. Herndon’s task, indeed what he sees as his duty, is to portray Lincoln in truth because he believes that is what Lincoln would’ve wanted. While the reader may remark on the proximity to Billy’s quest to write a non-hagiography, Leclair pivots on the dramatic irony. This is a project doomed to the dustbin.
One scene expands on Leclair’s constructions and telescopes throughout the novel, Herndon’s guesses and wonders at Lincoln’s education. The two discuss Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” and the exchange as follows:
“So I don’t understand this ‘transparent eyeball.’”Herndon:
“That’s because your eyeball sees the world as a bunch of hogs to be driven, Mr. Lincoln. The transparent eyeball gives you intuition, unclouded insight into the profound inner workings of other men and nature.” I’d get out my copy of “Nature...