A Reader’s Guide-Part One

In the new paperback edition of I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War, there is a Reading Group Guide in the form of a rich conversation with the author.  Jerome has given me permission to share the guide with you, which I think will enhance our reading and be a wonderful prelude to our conference call on February 15th.

The guide has 13 questions.  Today’s post will share the first two.

These two opening questions and Jerome Charyn’s responses speak to some of what June Hirsh writes about in her post yesterday—about getting to know Jerome through reading his wonderful novel of Lincoln.

 Reading Group Guide Excerpt

How did you decide to write I Am Abraham in Lincoln’s own voice?

Jerome Charyn

It was an impossible task, and I needed to attempt the impossible.  I needed to be on a tightrope ready to fall. [When I wrote The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson] it was much easier to find the music of Emily Dickinson’s voice, not only because we have her poems, but [because] we have those extraordinary letters where she assumes so many masks.  She can be Scarlett O’Hara, or Cleopatra, or a total witch in the same sentence.  I didn’t have the same luxury with Lincoln. I had to invent the voice, from his speeches, from letters we have, and from the tall tales that he told. But somehow from the start, I always had Huck Finn in mind, and I thought, what would Huck Finn sound like when he grew up? And that’s how I dreamt my way into Lincoln’s voice.

Was Lincoln’s depression important to you?

Lincoln had two serious bouts of depression during his life–at least two times that we can confirm.  The first followed the death of Anne Rutledge and the second came after he “jilted” Mary Todd, and these depressions were a way for me to enter the novel and also a key to unlock his voice.  But, as novelist Jay Neugeboren said to me during a debate at a Manhattan bookshop, I wasn’t really writing about Lincoln, I was writing about myself, and in a way I put on Lincoln’s beard and stovepipe hat and wandered into his White House, and I’ve never been able to wander out.

STAY TUNED FOR OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT

P4P Conference Call

with Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST

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I Am Abraham Readers Forum

I’m both a reader and organizer of the Politics 4 the People Book Club – so this club is near and dear to my heart! I’m particularly moved by our latest selection. Thank you Cathy Stewart for introducing us to “I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War” by Jerome Charyn. It’s a lovely book, chock full of vignettes–tragic, funny, and ordinary–that you could imagine Abraham Lincoln experiencing.

June Hirsh

June Hirsh

This book has given me a window into the heart and soul of Abraham Lincoln, a beloved figure in US history.  On the face of it – this may seem like an odd statement, since the book is not factual. It’s a novel. And in a magical way, it’s autobiographical! I also thank you Cathy, for introducing us to Charyn. I think the book speaks to the author’s character as much as it does Lincoln’s. It is likely that you can find a sense of an author in every book they write. But I particularly thought about that, with this book. I really look forward to meeting Mr. Charyn on our conference call. Here we have a colorful glimpse of Lincoln, not as an icon, an abstraction, an untouchable, but instead, how he just might have been in the world, A kind, decent man – a man with integrity and great ambition, with an abundance of human frailties and flaws, In his inner most thoughts, how could he not have imagined himself with Ann Rutledge, as he did? This was as real as it gets. To me, this is not a neurotic Lincoln, and not a liberal man. He’s a down to earth working man who does what he sees needs to be done. He is touched by the other. He makes mistakes and he owns up to them. The author brings Lincoln to life whimsically, irreverently, and always with respect. He questions – actually he throws out the window – the worn out label “Honest Abe” along with all the homilies that have kept Lincoln away from us and long buried in his grave, a one-dimensional figure. A common and extraordinary man, yet so untouchable to us, the common men and women who love and admire him from afar, with this book, we get up close and personal! So again, thank you! June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org.  She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

P4P Conference Call

with Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST

Learning to Read Fiction

By Dr. Jessie Fields

I Am Abraham, are the first written words (he wrote them in the sand) of Abraham Lincoln, who would go on to write some of the most  historically resonant speeches and documents of American democracy up to and during the Civil War. For Lincoln, as the son of a poor farmer who had very little formal education, the very act of learning to read and write signified aspiration beyond the circumstances into which he was born.

Dr. Jessie Fields Harlem on Primary Day 2014

I have always been intrigued by the role that learning to read and write has played historically. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write.

Frederick Douglass, born a slave, as a child did manage to learn to read and write by giving pieces of bread to poor white children in exchange for their teaching him words. He like Lincoln would go on to become a brilliant writer.

Reading has played a big role in my own life. As a child my mother, who grew up very poor and was not able to finish high school, instructed me never to read fiction. I had to read only what was “true”. As a result in grade school I read biographies of great American presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which were in the school library. I did also joyfully find a book about Harriet Tubman. So I grew up with a tendency to read nonfiction almost exclusively. Even today I rarely read novels.

At first reading the novel I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn, our current selection for the Cathy L. Stewart Politics for the People Book Club, was difficult for me. I am a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, having long admired his writing and his commitment to stand firm on the Emancipation Proclamation. In the novel Jerome Charyn touches this American icon.  Following the urging of Cathy Stewart who advised me to relax and “let go” in reading the novel, I am actually enjoying the book. It is in fact very much about the love affair of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. I also appreciate the effort to convey personal and intimate details of some very momentous events in our shared American story. Enjoy your reading of Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham.

Jessie Fields is a physician in Harlem and a founder of the NYC Independence Party. She serves on boards of Open Primaries and the All Stars Project.

P4P Conference Call

with Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST

National Readathon Day

National Readathon Day, Saturday, January 24, 2015, make #timetoread

 

Today is the first National Readathon Day!  My kind of day!

This is an effort being organized by Penguin Random House, GoodRead, Mashable, and the National Book Foundation to have folks participate in a marathon reading session from 12 – 4 pm.  I am reading I Am Abraham: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War by Jerome Charyn.

Savoring Jerome’s wonderful book with me today are two other Politics for the People members. I asked them to share a thought with us as they make #TimeToRead today:

“I love I Am Abraham because it takes a look at class in Civil War America.  Charyn flushes out the image of Lincoln growing up in a log cabin, reading by candlelight–basically Lincoln grew up poor.  The fictional Lincoln feels and confronts the humiliation of being poor in the upper class worlds of society and politics. ”     Jessica Marta

“This is a fabuolous book–accessible, informative and beautifully written. I am really looking forward to our conversation with Jerome next month.”    Pat Wagner

What are you reading today?

Let me leave you with the video from one of my favorite authors, Khaled Hosseini talking about the power of reading to connect.

[If the video is not embedded, you can click to watch it here.]

P4P Conference Call

with Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST.

The New York Times Review

SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

Monument Man

‘I Am Abraham,’ by Jerome Charyn

By RICHARD BROOKHISER       FEB. 21, 2014

No president has written as well as Abraham Lincoln. He could thrill, reason, prophesy, mourn and crack jokes. Who wouldn’t want to read a book in his own words — all the more enticing if it scanted the political and administrative minutiae that fill his collected works and gave us a window into his inner life?

Even if Lincoln hadn’t been murdered, he would never have written such a book. For an often garrulous man, he was notoriously tight-lipped about anything he didn’t want to say in a proclamation or from a podium. Biographers and historians have labored to fill the gaps. Jerome Charyn takes the approach of fiction.

“I Am Abraham” is an interior monologue, with Lincoln surveying his own life. Charyn’s novel follows the course of known events from 1831, when Lincoln left his father and stepmother and struck out on his own, until April 1865, when he visited Richmond, Va., conquered capital of the Confederacy. Only one character of any consequence — a female Pinkerton agent — is entirely invented, and Charyn assures us in an author’s note that Pinkerton did use women agents.

Abraham Lincoln, 1864. Library of Congress

 

Charyn’s best touch is Lincoln’s voice: thoughtful, observant and droll, good for the long narrative haul. Its ground bass is Kentucky rube. Lincoln says “the-ay-ter” and seems amused that he continues to say so even though he has become president of the United States. He varies this tone with echoes of the Bible, poetry and speeches from the the-ay-ter. (He describes his wife, Mary, retreating after one of their fights “into her bedroom in the crepe of a demented queen.”)

Readers may be surprised by how lewd this Lincoln can be. Do you want a recollection of the first time he felt a woman’s breasts? Of the first time he had intercourse? It’s all here. But the historical Lincoln’s arsenal of jokes did include obscene ones. Readers may also be struck by how lurid early-19th-century America seems through his eyes. His description of the Clary’s Grove Boys, a posse of toughs who confronted, then befriended him after he first moved to Illinois, reads like Midwest magic realism. “Their eyes were painted black, their noses masked with bits of red cloth, making them look sinister as ghouls; they had spikes in their arms and straw hats with missing crowns and rough, rawhide boots; their single ornament was a neckerchief with yellow polka dots that flashed in the sun and could be observed a quarter-mile away.”

Charyn’s Lincoln is a man of sorrows. Presiding over the Civil War would do that to anybody, but here the sorrows are traced back to an unsympathetic father and to the death of Ann Rutledge, his first sweetheart. Today we would call Lincoln depressed and give him pills. The man himself calls his bouts of gloom “unholies” and “the hypo” (from hypochondriasis) and just tries to ride them out.

Some famous men appear in this Lincoln’s thoughts — Stephen Douglas, George McClellan, Ulysses Grant — but the main figures in “I Am Abraham” are family. Mary Lincoln is the Kentucky belle who charms and arouses him even after her fragile personality develops irreparable cracks. His eldest son, Robert, understands his mother and soothes her, but wants her committed. His youngest son, Tad, is an undisciplined imp who has a speech impediment, yet alone of the family accompanies his father in the book’s final set piece, the apocalyptic visit to Richmond.

What’s missing? Lincoln seems to think hardly at all about his writing. If that were true, then he would have been the first and only writer in history to do so. Still less credible is the near absence of politics. Charyn presents Lincoln as stumbling into high office, guided by handlers and prodded by Mary. Yet William Herndon, his law partner, testified that his ambition was “a little engine that knew no rest.” Politicians are even more absorbed in their work than writers, recalling every hand they’ve shaken, every back they’ve stabbed. A real transcript of Lincoln’s thoughts would read a lot like Machiavelli (if he were moral) or the Sunday morning talk shows (if they were intelligent).

Where, finally, is God? Lincoln thought about him, off and on, all his adult life, more and more as the war ground on. A month before Charyn’s conclusion, he delivered an Inaugural Address that was indistinguishable from a sermon. But God is pretty much M.I.A. here. Charyn’s Lincoln, like the historical one, does feel the depth of the wound slavery leaves on America. Next year, the first black president will preside over the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, yet demagogues, policy nerds and idealists still pick at the scab of race. It is our national “hypo.”

I AM ABRAHAM

A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

By Jerome Charyn

Richard Brookhiser’s most recent book is “James Madison.”

With Dr. King’s Spirit

Readers Forum

Keep sending me your thoughts on I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War.  Today, we feature a commentary by Harry Kresky.

I AM ABRAHAM

This is a most unusual book.  First, there is the question of what it is.  It tells the story of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President in the first person, in Lincoln’s voice.  And it is a novel by Jerome Charyn, our next guest on Cathy L. Stewart’s Politics for the People book club.

Charyn’s Lincoln, of course, grew up poor, was a small town lawyer, and was as physically strong as he was tall and homely.  He led the country through a civil war, the abolition of slavery, and was assassinated six days after the war’s successful conclusion.

Next to George Washington, Lincoln is our most iconic president.  This remarkable book reveals Lincoln’s inner life as told by himself.  The narration describes Lincoln masturbating, worrying that his oratorical skills were inadequate as he began his famous Cooper Union speech and, most strikingly, the empathy Lincoln had for ordinary people – soldiers, impoverished and abused children, White House servants who included former slaves.

Harry Kresky

Harry Kresky

Incidents (such as a séance his wife brought him to as she tried to connect to their son William who died in the White House at age 12) are described in great detail – much more than exists in the historical record.  While Charyn’s accounts are not “true,” they are always insightful  in allowing us to access Lincoln, his time, his life and his character.

I look forward to the opportunity to hear more about the creative process that produced this book.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters.

P4P conference call with Jerome Charyn:

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST.

Meeting Lincoln through Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham

Hope everyone has gotten their copy of I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and The Civil War by Jerome Charyn.

I am always interested in how a book gets its title.  In the case of our current selection, “I Am Abraham“, the title refers to the first words that Abraham Lincoln ever wrote.

To enhance your reading:

Here is a short YouTube video of Jerome Charyn talking with Jack Ford about his novel, filled with tidbits to enjoy.

 

If the video does not appear you can see it here.

And here is a short review that appeared in The New Yorker last year.

Books MARCH 17, 2014 ISSUE

Briefly Noted

 

I AM ABRAHAM, by Jerome Charyn (Liveright). This daring novel narrates the life of Abraham Lincoln, focussing less on the broad strokes of history and wartime politics than on the intimate daily life of the Lincoln household. The portrayal of Mary as a Kentucky belle whose assertiveness had no socially acceptable outlets in her time, and whose fits of madness rivalled Lincoln’s own depressions, is particularly memorable. Secondary characters, some real and some imagined, include a feisty female Pinkerton who saves Lincoln’s life from an assassination attempt. Charyn’s richly textured portrait captures the pragmatism, cunning, despair, and moral strength of a man who could have empathy for his bitterest foes, and who “had never outgrown the forest and a dirt floor.”

 

Our conference call

with Jerome Charyn will be on

Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST.

Selection for the New Year

I am excited to announce our first selection of 2015

I Am Abraham:

A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

By: Jerome Charyn

 

I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War is a fictionalized memoir that brings our 16th President to life.  It is a wonderfully entertaining read and a very human portrait of Abraham Lincoln, his tremendous empathy, his relationships with his wife, family and with the Presidency.

The book was released last year and recommended to us here at Politics for the People by author Alex Myers as one of our holiday book suggestions.  It was a top holiday pick for both the Lincoln Presidential Museum and Lincoln’s Cottage.

This is one book I know we will enjoy reading and discussing together!

I have included the publisher’s decription of the book below as well as a quote from Publisher’s Weekly.  You can purchase the book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or your local bookseller.  This is a fitting read for us on the way to President’s Day, which is February 16th.

Our conference call with Jerome Charyn will be on Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST.

 Here is what Publisher’s Weekly had to say:

“The novel… succeeds in making the legendary figure more accessible, using Lincoln’s lifelong battle with depression as an avenue through which to explore his life and perspective…. A warts-and-all portrayal, not only of the lead, but of central supporting figures, most especially his tempestuous and difficult wife, Mary. Charyn has managed to craft a fictional autobiography that rings emotionally true.”
—Publishers Weekly

 Here is a description from Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Company,

the publisher of I Am Abraham:

“Narrated in Lincoln’s own voice, the tragicomic I Am Abraham promises to be the masterwork of Jerome Charyn’s remarkable career.

Since publishing his first novel in 1964, Jerome Charyn has established himself as one of the most inventive and prolific literary chroniclers of the American landscape. Here in I Am Abraham, Charyn returns with an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War. Narrated boldly in the first person, I Am Abraham effortlessly mixes humor with Shakespearean-like tragedy, in the process creating an achingly human portrait of our sixteenth President.

Tracing the historic arc of Lincoln’s life from his picaresque days as a gangly young lawyer in Sangamon County, Illinois, through his improbable marriage to Kentucky belle Mary Todd, to his 1865 visit to war-shattered Richmond only days before his assassination, I Am Abraham hews closely to the familiar Lincoln saga. Charyn seamlessly braids historical figures such as Mrs. Keckley—the former slave, who became the First Lady’s dressmaker and confidante—and the swaggering and almost treasonous General McClellan with a parade of fictional extras: wise-cracking knaves, conniving hangers-on, speculators, scheming Senators, and even patriotic whores.

We encounter the renegade Rebel soldiers who flanked the District in tattered uniforms and cardboard shoes, living in a no-man’s-land between North and South; as well as the Northern deserters, young men all, with sunken, hollowed faces, sitting in the punishing sun, waiting for their rendezvous with the firing squad; and the black recruits, whom Lincoln’s own generals wanted to discard, but who play a pivotal role in winning the Civil War. At the center of this grand pageant is always Lincoln himself, clad in a green shawl, pacing the White House halls in the darkest hours of America’s bloodiest war.

Using biblically cadenced prose, cornpone nineteenth-century humor, and Lincoln’s own letters and speeches, Charyn concocts a profoundly moral but troubled commander in chief, whose relationship with his Ophelia-like wife and sons—Robert, Willie, and Tad—is explored with penetrating psychological insight and the utmost compassion. Seized by melancholy and imbued with an unfaltering sense of human worth, Charyn’s President Lincoln comes to vibrant, three-dimensional life in a haunting portrait we have rarely seen in historical fiction.”

 

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