Reader’s Forum—Allen Cox

For our exploration of The Notion of Family, several Politics for the People members have chosen a photo from the book to respond to with thoughts, words, a photo or a poem. Today is our third in the series and is from Allen Cox.

The Notion Of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier pg 29; Gramps on His Bed, 2003

I grew up in the projects, South Jamaica Housing  Projects in Queens.  My summers were spent in a working class community in Cincinnati Ohio, where my mother grew up.  I think it was called Evenston. There was a Coca Cola plant nearby that many people in the community worked for. When I went back after many years a highway had been built in front of my grandmother’s house, a place where homes once stood, now gone.

I’m writing about Gramps in his bed. This picture reminded me of my stepgrandfather, who was known as Mr. Friason– my grandmother’s second husband. When I was eight or 10 years old I spent my summer vacations at their home in Cincinnati, Ohio. I look forward to hearing Mr. Friason’s booming voice calling out “Ice Water” Ice Water, to my grandmother from his bed after his early morning ride on his bicycle, to this very day I don’t know where. As a kid I never thought of Mr. Friason’s behavior as strange, he just kept me laughing all the time. His bed seem to be his sanctuary, I never seen him leave it except when he came home from his bike ride and to go to the bathroom. He was always laughing and called kids baba. He used to smack his thighs so hard you could hear the smack from anywhere in the house. I just found out recently that Mr. Friason was very famous, he was one of the few Americans who walked across the United States and he also got honors for fighting in World War II. This is what Gramps in the bed reminds me of and I want thank LaToya Ruby Frazier for bring back these fond memories of Mr. Friason.

 ~Allen Cox
Allen Cox with Dr. Jessie Fields in Harlem on Primary Day.

Allen Cox with Dr. Jessie Fields in Harlem on Primary Day.

Allen Cox is a community organizer and independent activist.  He is a member of the NYC Independence Clubs.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST


641 715-3605

Code 767775#


Natesha & Margaret Meet

Reader’s Forum

By Natesha Oliver

Natesha Oliver (r) with Cathy Stewart and Politics for the People member, Cheryl White (l) National Conference of Independents, NYC, March 2015

Natesha Oliver (l) with Cathy Stewart and Politics for the People member, Cheryl White (r) National Conference of Independents, NYC, March 2015

Brightest Blessings To All:
First and most importantly BIG UPS to the author Megan Marshall for her ingenuity of insight in how she told the story of Margaret Fuller utilizing Margaret’s own words… That was AWESOME… And much thanks to Megan Marshall for this being a learning moment for me, I am not the dumbest tree in the forest yet with this book I had to up my comprehension skills quite a bit and THANK ALL THINGS HOLY for the dictionary…

The book itself was emotion evoking on a level that deeply resonates with me as a woman looking for the “highest grade” when it comes to intimate connections and as a woman “striving to discover and attain””everything she might be”… When women like Margaret Fuller comes along it is said “they are before their time”, which has always been a tad bit off because she was born then so it was her time then…

Margaret’s spiritual realizations were just as deeply personal for her and that is inspiring because she wasn’t one to conform to popular belief. Her ability to think in a “Man’s World” just tickles my fancy because it wasn’t the fact that she had the ability to speak among them as an equal mind, she had the ability to show them a thing or two and men in those days felt more intimated by a intellectual woman then than they do now… Although it is interesting that in certain circles of intellectual life women are still looked upon as the “softer sex”… I don’t know what is more offensive, that men still think that or that women still play the part… And I for one know that being the object of men’s affections are more dangerous than divine and that striving to be an intellectual equal is still a challenge… Margaret Fuller oddly enough did not see her actions as progress for women yet she saw herself as the voice to make the way for women coming behind her… Her own struggles with love and life were probably way more tumultuous than we could comprehend.  At least in these days women have some measure of law and civil consideration to expand, except in the financial department where men still make more money than women, WHAT”S UP WITH THAT!!!

I would like to say that Margaret leaving her son like that after being so torn in how others were leaves me to believe that she adopted men’s ways in a way that drove her to mirror their path for attaining success (this is my opinion men so don’t bite my head off).

In closing Margaret Fuller’s life and Megan Marshall telling of it shows the courage and dedication that women possess… MEN LOOK OUT YOU ACTUALLY DO HAVE TO SHARE THIS WORLD, EQUALLY!!!

“Man and woman, she asserted, were two halves of the “same thought”.  Neither “idea” could be fully realized as long as man failed to see that woman’s “interests were identical with his; and that, by law of common being, he could never reach his true proportions while she remained in any wise shorn of hers”.

Natesha Oliver is the founder of MIST, Missouri Independents Stand Together. She lives in Kansas City.


Politics for the People Conference Call

With Megan Marshall

Sunday, September 20th at 7 pm EST


641 715-3605, Code 767775#



This Cause is Your Own

Reader’s Forum

By Caroline Donnola

Megan Marshall’s wonderful book, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, is taking me back in time to my earliest introduction to Margaret Fuller and the moment in my life when I first began to discover the history of progressive leaders and the movements that created them.

In the fall of 1972 I began my first semester at Franconia College in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire.  Franconia was a small, experimental college that empowered students to participate actively in creating their education.  At the time, there was a national movement for education reform, and colleges like Franconia were coming into existence. For me it was a complete delight after years of being frustrated with the rigid, tightly-controlled public school system I had attended on the South Shore of Long Island.  The first person in my family to attend college, I was fortunate to receive a hefty scholarship.  I was grateful for this opportunity and I plunged right in.

Franconia College From Main Street, Open in 1963

Franconia College From Main Street

That first semester presented me with many eye-opening experiences.  I met two women students—Gracia Woodward and Natalie Woodroofe—who were interested in starting a Women’s Studies course.  Women’s Studies was a very new discipline (the first-publicized course was taught at Cornell University in 1969).  Part of the thrill in launching this program was that students were coming together, deciding what we wanted to learn and how we wanted to learn it.  That was a quintessential Franconia activity.  Two extraordinary instructors, David Osher, History Department, and Nancy Walker, English Department, were our faculty sponsors.

The initial reading syllabus included many famous works—both fiction and non-fiction—highlighting the history of women.  But after a few weeks, we students rebelled and asked to have the opportunity to read books about women written by women.

One of the authors we read was Margaret Fuller, and the book we read was her seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  The writing was typical of that era—somewhat dense, formal and full of references to classical writing, Greek mythology and scholarly thinking—but we were excited to read her own words.  That she was a feminist—and abolitionist—before the feminist movement took root, was a big part of her appeal.

During my years of studying social history at Franconia, I was repeatedly struck by the interconnection between the early women’s movement and the abolitionist movement.  White women of means stuck their necks out for the cause of abolition; black abolitionist men like Frederick Douglass stuck their necks out for the cause of women’s rights.

One of my favorite sections from Woman in the Nineteenth Century implores women to join the righteous cause of abolition and frames it as a highly personal, highly political act:

Women of my country … have you nothing to do with this? You see the men, how they are willing to sell shamelessly the happiness of countless generations of fellow-creatures, the honor of their country, and their immortal souls, for a money market and political power. Do you not feel within you that which can reprove them, which can check, which can convince them? You would not speak in vain; whether each in her own home, or banded in unison.

Tell these men that you will not accept the glittering baubles, spacious dwellings, and plentiful service they mean to offer you through those means. Tell them that the heart of Woman demands nobleness and honor in Man, and that, if they have not purity, have not mercy, they are no longer fathers, lovers, husbands, sons of yours.

This cause is your own, for, as I have before said, there is a reason why the foes of African Slavery seek more freedom for women; but put it not upon that ground, but on the ground of right.

Here’s to Margaret Fuller, and here’s to the exceptional opportunity I had many years ago, the daughter of working class parents, to not only get an education but to get one that was meaningful, powerful and radical and which helped inform my long political journey as an independent.  Can’t wait to join the dialogue with Megan Marshall on September 20th.

Caroline Donnola is the Executive Assistant to Jacqueline Salit, President of Independent Voting.
Caroline Donnola Franconia College

Caroline Donnola
Franconia College

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Megan Marshall

Sunday, September 20th at 7 pm EST


641 715-3605, Code 767775#


Reader’s Forum–Harry Kresky

Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad is inspiring.  It tells the story of Americans, black and white, working together to protect slaves who fled north to escape bondage.  In New York City, Foner’s focus, fugitive slaves were prey to bounty hunters sent north by their owners to seize them and take them back to slavery under

Harry Kresky speaking on "Can we make political reform popular with the American people?".  A panel at the National Conference of Independents, 2015.  Pictured with Chad Peace, Independent Voter Network (l) and John Opdycke, President, Open Primaries (r).

Harry Kresky (c) speaking on “Can we make political reform popular with the American people?”–A panel at the National Conference of Independents, 2015. Pictured with Chad Peace, Independent Voter Network (l) and John Opdycke, President, Open Primaries (r).

the country’s “fugitive slave laws.” When legal measures failed – as they often did – anti-slavery activists sometimes physically intervened to liberate captured men, women and children (some of whom had already been legally freed but could still bring a good price on the slave market) and helped them move north to upstate New York, New England and Canada.  This militancy hastened the end of slavery, and forced the hand of the slaveholding south by demonstrating, in Lincoln’s words:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.  Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”

It is significant, in my view, that the impetus to Foner’s book was the discovery by Madeline Lewis, one of his Columbia College students (who also worked as the Professor’s dog walker), of a contemporaneous document that described in great detail the efforts of Howard Gay and others to protect fugitive slaves and help them continue on the road to freedom.  Scholarship, searching the archives, can be the impetus for creative and politically important literary efforts.

Thank you Eric Foner and thank you Madeline Lewis who, like me, abandoned scholarship to become a lawyer.

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

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#


New Selection: GATEWAY to FREEDOM

I am excited to announce that our next selection will be Eric Foner’s latest book: Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.  He is one of this country’s most prominent historians and the author of over 20 books.  He is one of only two persons to serve as president of the three major professional organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians, and one of a handful to have won the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes in the same year.

In the first chapter, “Introduction: Rethinking the Underground Railroad”, the author describes Gateway to Freedom as follows:

     This book is a study of fugitive slaves and the underground railroad in New York City.  The nation’s major metropolis, New York before the Civil War consisted of Manhattan and the Bronx, with most of the population concentrated below Thirty-Fourth Street.  The city was a crucial way station in the metropolitan corridor through which fugitive slaves made their way from the Upper South through Philadelphia and on to upstate New York, New England, and Canada.  Since the underground railroad, by definition, can only be understood as an intercity, interregional enterprise, I also devote attention to other key sites in this northeastern network.  I discuss as well the national debate and federal legislation relating to fugitive slaves, and how the fugitive issue played a crucial role in precipitating the Civil War.”

I am looking forward to reading the book together!

The Politics for the People Conference Call

with Dr. Foner will be on April 19th at 7 pm.


Jerome Charyn Shares his P4P Experience

I was delighted to take part in the Politics for the People discussion group concerning my novel, I Am Abraham.  I think it is critical that a book club has its own political point of view and also a passion for politics as something that is alive and that continues to grow.  Art and politics are often intertwined; actually, all writing is a political act.  Every single sentence we write has a political slant.  And a novel told in Lincoln’s voice cannot help but breathe politics.

I was quite pleased that my novel was the book club’s first selection of 2015.  All the questions asked were quite impassioned.  Novelists are not extraterrestrials.  Each one of us shares many of the same weaknesses and strengths, and an ear for the music of words—otherwise we could not read.  It’s syncopation that drives a narrative.

Participants in the discussion all seemed very curious how I was able to write the book in Lincoln’s voice.  It wasn’t daring.  It was an act of will.  I had to become  Lincoln, to embody his gawkiness, his poetry, his sexuality, his shrewd sense of politics, and most of all, the music of his voice.

An author taking part in a book club discussion often learns as much as the participants, since he or she has to articulate what was on other people’s minds.  I had prepared no answers.  I was out there in the void with all of you, trying to pull words from the dark.  I hope my music—and Lincoln’s—entered all our ears. And I want to thank Cathy and everyone involved for allowing me to learn more about Lincoln with you.

—Jerome Charyn

Highlights of P4P Conference Call with Jerome Charyn


Jerome Charyn and Cathy Stewart


On Sunday, February 15th, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Jerome Charyn about his book, I Am Abraham.  I am sharing a few excerpts and you can listen to the entire conversation at the end of this post.  (Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Our first audio clip includes my introduction of Jerome and an exploration of how Jerome decided to write the novel and find Lincoln’s voice.  This section ends with a fascinating conversation between Jerome and Dr. Omar Ali about history, facts and fiction.  Give a listen.


Dr. Jessie Fields asked Jerome Charyn how he made the choice to put the assassination of Lincoln in the preface of the book.

In his response, Jerome shared, “I knew that I wanted to end the novel in Richmond because I thought it was the most important day in Lincoln’s life. Here was the conqueror coming to the conquered people, not as a conqueror, but as someone who was a peace maker…”


Jessica Marta asked : “You pay a lot of attention, in the book, to Mary Todd Lincoln’s decent into madness… I was wondering why you made that choice?”

Jerome responded: “Well, what I wanted to do was show that women in the 19th Century had so few choices. For example, she was much better educated than any of the men around her, certainly much better educated than her husband. But she could not enter public life in any fashion at all. And he never would have become president without her. She was his general… But as soon as he inhabited the White House, he sort of thrust her to the side… You take a very intelligent woman with a very political point of view and you give her nothing to do… she begins scheming. What I wanted to do was try to deal with her madness with as much sympathy as I could.”


The conversation explored much about the author’s writing process.  At one point Warren Liebesman asked Jerome to talk about how he developed the deeply evocative and poetic voice in the book.  Jerome talked with us the story of the last line of the book as one example. “You don’t know where it comes from and that’s what’s so perverse. For example, if you look at the very last sentence of the book…”

I piped in: “Is it? … and I held him as close as I could?”

 Jerome continued, “No, exactly. You put an extra ‘as’ in there. Now, I wrote that sentence ‘I held him as close I could.’ Now, the copy editor thought, ‘Who is this damn guy? What is he talking about?’ So he or she put in that second ‘as.’ So I didn’t notice it the first time around… then I said ‘Wait a minute. I would never write that sentence. There’s something much more intimate about the lack of the grammar there than it would be if you put in that second ‘as’.”


Below is the full recording of our P4P conversation

with Jerome Charyn.



Readers’ Forum-Where the Lines Blur

Dr. Jessie Fields

    The novel I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn adds to the literature and historical record of Lincoln’s life, layers of compassion, intimate detail, beauty and depth. 

I was particularly moved by Charyn’s exploration of Lincoln’s relationship wwith  his wife Mary Todd, with the soldiers who fought in the war and with African Americans.

The novel carries us into the deep sorrow of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln at the death of their son Willie and the enormous suffering, pain and death that occurred during the Civil War. Lincoln, shortly after Willie’s death, walks out of the White House for relief and gets a carriage ride to the Patent Office by a group of intoxicated Union soldiers who almost run him over. The Patent Office, like so many buildings in Washington at the time, had been transformed into a military hospital.  Walt Whitman worked as a nurse during the Civil War and served in the wards at the Patent Office, he wrote of the “curious scene” there. Here is Lincoln describing it in I Am Abraham.
So we went out upon these curious wards, which consisted of a narrow passage between two mountainous glass cases packed with miniature models of inventions patented at the Patent Office.   (Page 269)
Then a murmur broke through the silence of the ward-not the tick of a telegraph, or the flutter of wings, but that peculiar honey of the human voice when it didn’t rise up in anger. And I realized where all the lady nurses had gone; they hadn’t abandoned the hospital clinic. They stood at the end of the ward in their gray and green garb, with hymn books in their hands; accompanying them was another nurse with an accordion, and a little choral of convalescent soldiers who’d climbed out of their sick beds to sing with the nurses.”  (page 271)
Tears already filled my eyes as I glanced below at the hymn:
“It came upon the midnight clear
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold…
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!”

In the novel we learn about Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who had worked for the wife of Jefferson Davis before Keckly came to the Lincoln White House and became the “confident and couturiere” of Mary Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckly is very close to the Lincoln family and especially to Mary and their son Tad who had a speech impediment and called her “Yip”. In a telling interaction with the President about the death of her son in the war Keckly says, “It wasn’t a sacrifice, Mr. President. If I had been younger I would have disguised myself as a man and joined his regiment. I wouldn’t have fallen in his place. That would have rubbed out the dignity of his death. He had the honor of fighting for his country, Mr. Lincoln, even if that country couldn’t recognize the worth of who he was…”. (page 214)

That steadfast determination to be full and equal participants in our nation’s democracy continues with us today.

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, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

On Lincoln’s Birthday

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday.  What better time to be reading Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War?  Here is a delightful piece printed in THE DAILY BEAST today–an animated conversation between two novelists writing about Lincoln and William Herndon.  In this article, Jerome interviews novelist Tom LeClair on his novel about William Herndon, Lincoln’s Billy set to be released on April 15th.  Enjoy!


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

MAN OF MYSTERY     02.12.15

Lincoln Authors Can’t Agree on Lincoln


Novelists Tom LeClair and Jerome Charyn talk about their respective experiences of dealing with the ever mysterious Honest Abe in their fiction.

I didn’t know what to expect when I opened Tom LeClair’s new novel, Lincoln’s Billy, and I was sucked in by the marvelous syncopation of the narrator’s voice.

I was Lincoln’s Billy. Billy club when Lincoln refused to knock heads in Springfield. Billy goat when he needed a battering ram to reach Washington. Billy boy when he required a charming Billy to scare up money for his campaigns. 

The man who tells his own sad tale as “Lincoln’s Billy” is William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, political advisor, and friend. Yet not that much has ever been revealed about Billy, who remains in Lincoln’s shadow, though he was Lincoln’s first and very best biographer. Herndon is one of the great riddles of Lincoln scholarship, almost impossible to unravel because of his many incarnations—lawyer, abolitionist, mayor of Springfield, impoverished farmer, collector of Lincoln legends, and town drunk. Billy failed at almost everything he did. He failed to publish an unexpurgated biography of Lincoln, so Tom LeClair has stepped in to write this bawdy expose of young Lincoln, a tough sinewy novel about the very nature of narrative voice. The book reads like poetry disguised as sandpaper.

LeClair has published five other novels and is one of our most perceptive critics of postmodern literature, a kind of whale hunter in search of “monstrosities,” novels that are wayward and subversive and defy any definition of form. He admires Stanley Elkin, William Gass, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon, among others. He is also an avid ping-pong player. That’s where Tom and I first met, over a ping-pong table. And we’ve been battling it out over the past five years. When my own novel about Lincoln, I Am Abraham, was published last year, Tom interviewed me in The Daily Beast, and now it’s my chance to spin the ball and continue our conversation.

—Jerome Charyn

CHARYN: Tom, you’ve written your own subversive novel with a supple and unique voice. Where did you find Herndon’s “imprint,” his amazing musicality? It’s certainly not in his own writing.

LeCLAIR: Like some postmodern hoax, Billy’s “own writing” is not his own because his collaborator, Jesse Weik, wrote much of the 1889 biography,Herndon’s Lincoln, from the memoranda and letters Herndon sent him. Unlike Lincoln, whose secretaries wrote most of his letters as president, Billy wrote his own letters, but they are effusive and bombastic in the 19th-century legal style, so I had to rein in Herndon’s voice to one that contemporary readers would tolerate for more than 20 pages. Because Lincoln’s Billy purports to be Billy’s unedited “autobiography” and “secret life” of Lincoln, I needed an informal yet sometimes literary and learned style because Billy was a very well-read man, more of an intellectual than Lincoln, whose story-telling in the novel is much more colloquial than Billy’s narration. Lincoln’s Billy is most essentially about trust, and the two styles compete for authority or belief.

CHARYN: And compete for truth. Isn’t “Lincoln’s Billy” also Billy Liar?

LeCLAIR: My Billy a liar? [a soft chuckle] Lincoln trusted his Billy more than any other person, certainly more than the proven liar Mary Todd Lincoln. Even Herndon’s condescending biographer, David Donald, trusted Billy on the facts that he gathered and presented. But Billy is writing this “document” at the end of his life when he’s impoverished, and he might have ulterior reasons for not accurately retelling all of Lincoln’s stories. I like your question because it introduces a significant difference in the ways we depict Lincoln. Your I Am Abraham offers an original and thoughtful version of the private and public Lincoln as protagonist and as narrator whose reliability—he is Honest Abe, after all—is taken for granted. Because Lincoln’s Billy is not just narrated by Billy butwritten by him under difficult circumstances, the novel can cast suspicion on Honest Abe and Trustworthy Billy—and on the truth of history, whatever that is. To me, I Am Abraham seems written under the sign of the 19th-century realistic novel, maybe Howells (who wrote a campaign biography of Lincoln) or James. My 19th-century mentors in Lincoln’s Billy are the hoaxer Poe and the “no trust” Melville of The Confidence Man and Benito Cereno, so our Lincolns are rather different from each other, as well as different from the Lincoln of his biographers.

CHARYN: My own mentors weren’t Howells or James, but Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, another teller of tall tales, but one with moral passion. In a way, Lincoln and his Billy remind me of Huck and Jim, though Billy wasn’t black and Billy wasn’t a slave. Yet your novel suggests a strange camaraderie between Lincoln and Billy, with Billy always as the junior partner and secret accomplice, younger, more volatile, but as he looks back at his law partner who was deified once he died, Billy wants to break through all the masks and all the myths. I myself was touched by Billy, and devoted several chapters to him in my novel. And I was deeply touched by your Billy in Lincoln’s Billy, how you managed to make him come alive on the page and allow us to feel his own wound: Lincoln abandoned Billy, didn’t take him to Washington, left him to rattle in the wind. This abandonment is one of the keys to your novel. You’re clear about his opinion of Mary, but what do you think Billy finally felt about the man-god who had once been his law partner?

LeCLAIR: Billy visited Washington twice, didn’t like it, and didn’t like cities in general. When he began lecturing about Lincoln not long after the assassination and revealing uncomplimentary facts about the “man-god,” the worshippers said Billy resented Lincoln and betrayed him for, as you say, abandoning him. But Billy always denied he wanted to serve in Washington. Your novel ends with Lincoln’s assassination. Billy lived until 1891, so he has a somewhat longer view of Lincoln than your Lincoln could have had of himself. By the end of his life, Billy recognized that some of Lincoln’s policies—such as his support for the railroad—and some of Lincoln’s Republican cronies were partly responsible for Billy’s failure as a small farmer. But I think Billy always loved Lincoln the man, who was his best friend for two decades, and it’s that love that got Billy in trouble from those first lectures all the way through his published biography. He believed that the early biographers who made Lincoln a saint did him a disservice. By revealing his flaws, Billy felt he magnified, rather than diminished, Lincoln’s heroism because it required Lincoln to overcome his all-too-human limitations and circumstances—his superstitions and bouts of depression, his ugliness and awkwardness, his life with the harridan Mary, the deaths of two children. At the end of Lincoln’s Billy, Billy has reason to suspect that some of the stories Lincoln has told him about his two formative trips to New Orleans may have been made up to calm, as you say, the “volatile” abolitionist Billy, but despite his suspicion Billy seems to remain loyal. “Seems” because readers will have to judge whom to trust at the end when Billy recalls—or possibly invents—one final dialogue about New Orleans. I had Billy describe his relationship with Old Abe as “avuncular,” but Billy also wonders if Lincoln envied Billy’s early “featherbed” happiness. Given your interest in Lincoln’s sexuality, do you think the relationship was Oedipal in some way?

CHARYN: Tom, that’s a question with two loaded barrels—perhaps three. I’m not sure that Lincoln’s sexuality plays out here. One might ask if Lincoln had any sexual feelings towards Billy, and if Billy wanted to usurp Lincoln’s role as father-protector, or if Lincoln had any desire to run like the devil from Mary and sleep with Billy’s first wife. And I would have to say that all three loaded barrels have very little reverberation. I believe that Lincoln used Billy, as you suggest in the opening lines of your novel. Lincoln always had the instincts of a politician, even as a very young man. And so much of the power of your novel comes from Billy’s own realization that he is being played, but that he still enjoyed the rumble of it all, the need to be Lincoln’s Billy, whether a subterranean part of him resented it or not. Yet I have the suspicion that you yourself don’t really admire Lincoln, that you identify far more with Billy’s bumbling around than with the craftiness that allowed Lincoln to capture the presidency. Am I wrong?

LeCLAIR: You say three barrels. How about three hats? As a citizen, how can one not admire Lincoln the stovepipe statesman? But as a novelist, I was most drawn to Lincoln the obsessive storyteller, a man who would interrupt the most serious business of state to tell jokes and stories. Your Lincoln reports and meditates on important events. My Lincoln tells tales, sometimes tall, often vulgar. As a critic, though, I identify with Billy, the person who listens to and has to evaluate the worth of those stories. But, as Ahab says to Starbuck, you want the “little lower layer.” You’re right: I was attracted to Herndon because he was so often a failure, as you have pointed out. Initially, I found his mind more interesting than Lincoln’s. Billy was more widely read in law, literature, and science, more dedicated to social justice, a free thinker, an opponent of Christian fundamentalism and monopolistic corporations, a quixotic altruist, a man often ahead of his time. But Billy’s mind failed for twenty years to produce his biography. When he finally managed with his collaborator, the publisher folded and Billy earned nothing for his family. Failed as a lawyer and as a farmer, in failing health, Billy never got to write the frank Lincoln biography he wanted or his own autobiography, so I decided to do both for him in one book. You told me you got interested in writing about Lincoln when you discovered he suffered from the depressions that debilitated you during one period in your life. Why do you think we’re drawn to failure? It can’t be that we’re so often defeated at the ping-pong table.

CHARYN: Failure emboldens us, makes us crafty, even on the ping-pong table. And many of the writers I admire—Melville, Dickinson, Kafka—were virtually invisible during their lifetimes. Art, I think, often has to dance around in the void. And what I find curious is that I ever became a writer at all. I grew up in the South Bronx, the land of poverty and petty hoodlums. There wasn’t even one fucking book in my house, and yet here I am, a kind of rabbinical scholar of words. I don’t think your background was much different from mine, if you shift the landscape from the South Bronx to rural Vermont. So how did we both end up with a lifelong fascination for problematic language and labyrinthian tales?

LeCLAIR: For the first eight grades, I went to a one-room schoolhouse with Faulkner’s Bundrens and Snopeses. Calvin Coolidge’s old high school wasn’t much better, but I escaped Vermont to be educated in logic- and language-chopping by the Jesuits at Boston College. You somehow crossed boroughs to Columbia. Maybe we both have a respect for literacy and the literary not always found in those with better early education. But much as we might want to celebrate our Lincoln-like rise above circumstances, don’t we have to admit that our teaching literature in universities probably accounts for our interest in the problematic and difficult? And, come to think of it, wouldn’t our training in literary ambiguity quite naturally, if somewhat belatedly, lead us to the enigmatic character of American history—Lincoln? You’ve perused the library shelves of books about him and read many of them. They are like some multi-volume modernist novel with a hundred points of view. Multiplicity and uncertainty gives us an opening. Why shouldn’t we novelists enter in and imagine the unrecorded intimate experience of the long-dead icon, the experience largely ignored by the factotums of fact and purveyors of interpretation? Herndon’s informants refused to repeat the off-color stories Lincoln told, so I had to invent them, just as you had to invent the erotic attraction of Mary Todd. Of course we will differ in our imagined Lincolns. And I suppose our differences create more ambiguity, but I accept that because I believe fiction can humanize the men in larger-than-life marble and heroic bronze. And for men like William Herndon, maybe a novel can erect a small statue of words, a reminder that even giants need their Billys and may be judged by them.

Tom LeClair’s latest novel, Lincoln’s Billy, will be published by Permanent Press on April 15.

Jerome Charyn’s latest novel, I Am Abraham, was just reissued in paperback, and in June Liveright will publish Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories.


P4P Conference Call

With Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

On Becoming and I Am Abraham

Omar H. Ali

It seems to me that we are always becoming something other than who we are. Sometimes our transformations are infinitesimal, unnoticeable, unremarkable; sometimes they are large, upsetting, dramatic, and bold–to ourselves and others.

Abraham Lincoln, like so many ordinary-people-made-extraordinary by the circumstances into which they came and the multiple actions they and others took, became different things to different peoplejust as you who are reading this are becoming different things to different people.

In the complex, public, and private, mix-of-things during mid-nineteenth century America, Lincoln grew–and continues to grow (as our understanding of the ‘past’ and people in the past is shaped by what we’ve done since and do now).

We know of Lincoln’s political development from historical works, such as Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which documents Lincoln’s transformation in part through the pressures (viz. leadership) of African Americans who pressed him to move in the direction of Emancipation.

Dr. Omar Ali (l) and North Carolina Independents on Primary Day 2014

Dr. Omar Ali (l) and North Carolina Independents on Primary Day 2014

While the larger contours of Lincoln’s political development from his earliest to final days are generally known–some, like the historian Paul Finkelman, might argue that Lincoln’s anti-slavery sentiments were always there but were simply revealed over time–the subjectivity of his transformations are less known (he did not keep a personal diary of his reflections). In other words, the ways in which he thought about the things he was creating and going through, the emotional part of his life, are less known from what documentary evidence exists. This is where novels–here, historical fiction–help.

Even as novels entertain and help us create other spaces and emotions, some familiar, others less so, they also have a functional purpose that can, I believe, help us all better understand not necessarily them, but us. In novels, where expressed subjectivity is essential, the voices of authors come through, becoming revealed with turns of phrases, pages, and the intimate subjects that they choose to explore.

This is what we have in what is an exquisitely written fictional account of Lincoln (in the first person) over the course of three and a half decades: I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War by Jerome Charyn, a master wordsmith, a poet of prose.

As I wrote in an earlier post for P4P, the line between History (i.e. Fact) and Fiction, is often not clear; I argue that the lines between each genre are perhaps best understood as blurred–that to think of a sharp distinction between one and the other takes away from what each gives us.

Charyn’s novel is a literary feast, giving us insight (perhaps, or perhaps not) into Lincoln’s subjective experience of surviving and becoming. As much as it is about Lincoln, it is about the author, but by extension, by our reading it, it is about us.

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D., is a historian and community organizer in Greensboro, North Carolina, who is helping to lead the Southern regional delegation of independents to the 2015 national conference of independents by in New York City on March 14th. E-mail:


P4P Conference Call

With Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

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