Friday, February 13, 2009

A Night at the Theatre

A Night at the Theatre by Abraham Lincoln
An Introduction to the Anniversary Edition

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and the University of Rhode Island Press has chosen to mark the occasion by publishing this new edition of his classic novel, A Night at the Theatre, widely regarded as the single most influential novel in American literature. Not only was it the inspiration for two different literary movements, Counterfactualism and Stream-of-Consciousness, many historians feel that its popularity contributed to the cooling of passions on the issue of slavery in the 1860s. This is all the more remarkable given that A Night at the Theatre was the only work of fiction ever written by Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln was a successful railroad lawyer in Springfield, Ill. during the tumultuous presidential election of 1860. In that year, Senator William H. Seward of New York, the candidate of what was then a newly forged anti-slavery coalition called the Republican Party, was narrowly defeated by the Democratic candidate, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. The Republicans were regarded with such loathing by Southerners that the mere possibility of a Seward victory led a number of Southern statesmen to threaten to secede from the Union. The threat of secession and civil war so alarmed Lincoln that he set out to write a cautionary tale for his fellow countrymen on the evils that waited in store for them should they ever allow the nation to be torn asunder.

A Night at the Theatre was the result. A number of literary critics have advanced the hypothesis that the novel's unorthodox (for the time) structure was the result of Lincoln's lack of formal schooling. Despite serving in the Illinois state legislature and the US House of Representatives, and despite his successful law practice, Lincoln grew up in humble circumstances in Kentucky and Indiana. The little schooling he received had barely sufficed to allow him to "read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three" as he put it. Thus, Lincoln may have pioneered the technique of Stream-of-Consciousness not from deliberate intent, but because he literally didn't know any better.

The novel opens with its viewpoint character, President Moses York, paying half-hearted attention to the lackluster perfomance of a play which he and his wife are attending at Ford's Theatre in Washington City. York hears footsteps behind him, and turns just in time to see a man fire a pistol point blank in his face. For the rest of the novel's forty-five chapters, York fades in and out of consciousness as he is carried out of the theatre to a nearby house, where he spends the next few hours slowly dying of his wounds.

The reader follows President York as he deliriously relives a life lived in a world different from our own, a world where he was elected President in 1860 on the Republican ticket, prompting the Southern secession and civil war Lincoln feared. As the war between North and South drags on for year after terrible year, the armies fighting become larger, the weapons used become deadlier, and the casualties of battle mount from the thousands to the tens of thousands and finally into the hundreds of thousands. York relives in harrowing detail visits to field hospitals crammed with so many wounded there aren't enough beds to hold them all, with piles of severed limbs visible through the windows. We see through his eyes the aftermath of battles fought by hundreds of thousands of men, freshly turned mass graves covering the ground as far as the eye can see, and huge trees felled by the passage of countless bullets through their trunks.

We also see the gradual darkening of the soul of a man of peace forced to direct a terrible war. In the novel's last chapter, York's wandering memory returns to the theatre box where an assassin's bullet brings him face to face with his own mortality, and the reader shares his inseparable feelings of fear and relief as he sets aside the awful burden of his life and faces final judgment for his actions and the actions of his countrymen. The flash of the assassin's pistol merges with an all-consuming light that could either be an ethereal glow or the fires of retribution, and the novel ends with the chilling line, "York knew he would welcome either."

Lincoln completed A Night at the Theatre in the autumn of 1861, and he initially had considerable difficulty in finding a publisher for it. The novel was finally serialized in the Providence (R.I.) Daily Journal beginning on March 29, 1862. Although the response was lukewarm at first, by the time the last chapter was published on January 31, 1863, the Daily Journal's circulation had doubled, and two dozen other papers around the country were serializing the novel. Book publication followed in April 1863, and within a year it had sold 300,000 copies, making it the most popular work of fiction since Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Although the civil war depicted in A Night at the Theatre ended in defeat for the Southern secessionists and freedom for the South's slaves (which no doubt helped persuade Henry B. Anthony, the editor of the staunchly Republican Providence Daily Journal, to publish it), Lincoln's graphic depiction of the carnage of war diluted the novel's sectional appeal. While the Charleston Mercury dismissed the novel as "the longest tall tale ever spun by a drunken backwoodsman", De Bow's Review of New Orleans praised Lincoln for showing "the grim face of war", which "all too many of our countrymen, North and South, seem eager to embrace". Likewise, while the Chicago Tribune called the novel "the most important work of fiction ever to be published upon these shores", the New York Herald denounced it as "worthy of no more notice than the ravings of any other lunatic".

It is true that the cooling of passions in the early 1860s had many causes. The "cotton bust" in the South made it plain to many Southerners that their reliance upon cotton and a few other cash crops as their section's economic foundation left them too vulnerable to the caprice of the marketplace. James D. B. De Bow's call for the South to embrace the industrial revolution and economic diversification gained many adherants, and the power of the planter aristocracy began to decline. Likewise, the efforts of President Douglas, and, after his death, those of President Herschel Johnson, to dampen the flaring tempers of the time (and incidentally to re-unite their fractured party) helped to bring a measure of calm to a nation that had come perilously close to hysteria.

Nevertheless, there is no question that the horrifying vision Lincoln's novel presented of a nation plunged into fratricidal war did much to cool tempers roused by the events of the 1850s. When Seward finally won the Presidency in 1864, few Southerners outside of South Carolina were moved to consider secession, a marked contrast to the attitudes of four years earlier. Seward's measured policies with regard to slavery gave further encouragement to Southern moderates, and with the admission of Kansas as a free state in 1866 and the abolition of slavery in Delaware the following year, Southerners seemed finally to recognize that the gradual termination of their peculiar institution would prove more beneficial in the long run than a doomed resort to war.

The novel's literary impact was equally great. Writers from Horace Greeley to Walt Whitman began to experiment with the Stream-of-Consciousness form, which eventually gave rise to such masterpieces as Mark Twain's The River, Stephen Crane's Shipwreck, and Jack London's Gold. Although the popularity of Stream-of-Consciousness waned after the turn of the century as Cabell's New Romanticism gained ascendancy, its status as the first uniquely American form of literature has earned it a lasting place in this country's literary canon.

At the same time, Lincoln's detailed picture of an alternative America at war with itself gave birth to the Counterfactual genre which has produced such notable works as Winston Churchill's The American Dominions, Marcel Proust's Napoleon Triumphant, and William Faulkner's audacious series of sequels to Lincoln's original, the Yoknapatawpha Chronicles. In 1963, the 100th anniversary of the publication of A Night at the Theatre, the American Counterfactual Society instituted the annual Abraham awards to honor the year's best achievements in counterfactual literature. Such past Abraham winners as H. Beam Piper's The Champion of Lutzen, Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, and Harry Turtledove's A Different Flesh show the continuing vigor of Lincoln's other literary offspring.

Lincoln himself did not live long enough to see the impact his novel had on the nation he loved. On June 8, 1862, while his novel was still being serialized in the Providence Daily Journal, Lincoln died in a train wreck outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Professor John E. Pez
Department of History
University of Rhode Island
February 13, 2009

1 comment:

Syd Webb said...

A nice update of a classic review.