By the Book: ‘Lincoln’s Billy’ by Tom LeClair

Lincoln's Billy
Lincoln's Billy by Tom LeClair

April 15 marked the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The country, divided as it was, came together in extremes after his death—either idolizing or demonizing Lincoln. In Lincoln’s Billy (The Permanent Press), novelist, critic and reviewer Tom LeClair presents Lincoln through the eyes of his law partner for over 20 years, William (Billy) Herndon, a name unfamiliar to many Lincoln followers but someone who was at Lincoln’s side during his formative years.

Billy was a passionate abolitionist, reformer and atheist, clearly to the left of The Great Emancipator and more intellectual. But he came in for heavy criticism when he started lecturing and writing about Lincoln, showing his beloved but rough-and-raw friend from “Kaintuck” as “a man of fused contradictions.” Herndon kept letters to and from Lincoln, and he interviewed their friends and colleagues. He elicited hostility from Lincoln’s difficult widow, Mary Todd, who was furious that Herndon had spoken about Lincoln’s loving a young woman, Ann Rutledge. Herndon suggested that Rutledge’s early death threw Lincoln into a depression and subsequent unhappy marriage to Todd. Herndon also believed that Abe may have sowed some wild oats in New Orleans and may have even fathered a black child.

Far from thinking that such possible “secrets” would tarnish the character of the nation’s greatest statesman, Herndon felt that martyrdom did the greater damage. It infuriated him that his “partner and best friend” had become the subject of hagiography. Censure as well as financial problems got in the way of Herndon’s writing, though 25 years later he turned over vast amounts of paper to a Lincoln biographer who worked with him, but did heavy editing. The question that emerges, of course, is whom to trust: Honest Abe or Trustworthy Billy?

LeClair slyly says he constructed the novel to suggest “that historical fact is much more difficult to ascertain than most of us imagine.” Regardless, he piques interest with this carefully researched story, told with words and images appropriate to the time.

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