I Am Abraham {A Review}

02_I Am AbrahamPB Publication Date: February 9, 2015
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Paperback; 480p

Genre: Historical Fiction

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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.

Praise for I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

“Thoughtful, observant and droll.” — Richard Brookhiser, New York Times Book Review

“Not only the best novel about President Lincoln since Gore Vidal’s Lincoln in 1984, but it is also twice as good to read.” — Gabor Boritt, author of The Lincoln Enigma and recipient of the National Humanities Medal

“Jerome Charyn [is] a fearless writer… Brave and brazen… The book is daringly imagined, written with exuberance, and with a remarkable command of historical detail. It gives us a human Lincoln besieged by vividly drawn enemies and allies… Placing Lincoln within the web ordinary and sometimes petty human relations is no small achievement.” — Andrew Delbanco, New York Review of Books

“Audacious as ever, Jerome Charyn now casts his novelist’s gimlet eye on sad-souled Abraham Lincoln, a man of many parts, who controls events and people—wife, sons, a splintering nation—even though they often are, as they must be, beyond his compassion or power. Brooding, dreamlike, resonant, and studded with strutting characters, I Am Abraham is as wide and deep and morally sure as its wonderful subjects.” — Brenda Wineapple, author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compassion: 1848-1877

“If all historians—or any historian—could write with the magnetic charm and authoritative verve of Jerome Charyn, American readers would be fighting over the privilege of learning about their past. They can learn much from this book—an audacious, first-person novel that makes Lincoln the most irresistible figure of a compelling story singed with equal doses of comedy, tragedy, and moral grandeur. Here is something beyond history and approaching art.” — Harold Holzer, chairman, Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

“Jerome Charyn is one of the most important writers in American literature.” — Michael Chabon

“Jerome Charyn is merely one of our finest writers with a polymorphous imagination and crack comic timing. Whatever milieu he chooses to inhabit, his characters sizzle with life, and his sentences are pure vernacular music, his voice unmistakable.” — Jonathan Lethem

“Charyn, like Nabokov, is that most fiendish sort of writer—so seductive as to beg imitation, so singular as to make imitation impossible.” — Tom Bissell

“One of our most intriguing fiction writers takes on the story of Honest Abe, narrating the tale in Lincoln’s voice and offering a revealing portrait of a man as flawed as he was great.” — Abbe Wright, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Jerome Charyn, like Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s superb 2012 movie, manages a feat of ventriloquism to be admired… Most of all, Lincoln comes across as human and not some remote giant… With that, Jerome Charyn has given Lincoln a most appropriate present for what would have been his 205th birthday this month: rebirth not as a marble memorial but as a three-dimensional human who overcame much to save his nation.” — Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor

“Daring… Memorable… 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.’” — The New Yorker

2

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be president? Any president, really. I once imagined being George Washington when I was a little girl. As I got older, I wanted a book like that. I wanted to be put into the mindset of a president and to see things from their point of view, even if it’s fictional. So, paint me a happy woman when I was contacted to review ‘I Am Abraham’. I did not hesitate because firstly, it’s what I wanted and secondly, I find that there’s a severe lack of American Historical Fiction. Now, mind you, I did try once to read a book about Mary Todd Lincoln that was from her point of view…and well, I just didn’t enjoy that. (Click her name and it will take you to my review of ‘The Emancipator’s Wife’.) So, alright, I did worry I might not like it but I was not too disappointed at all. In fact, I loved this book as much as I loved the film, Lincoln.

To fully jump into the role of our 16th President and to do it so effortlessly is really something amazing. from the use of proper language and phrases and to the descriptions of where he was, what he aimed to do…brilliant. I do think though, that there are flaws, such as his fixation on the female body and how Mary was portrayed. She is never portrayed as a being a woman with a mental illness; she is always written as being crazy or maddeningly annoying, It was also very interesting to me and I think that this is something that people forget with how much we glorify him, that he didn’t view himself as anyone great. He was a man elected to office right as we were going to war. He was not the Great Emancipator yet, he wasn’t any of the things that we refer to him as. Not yet anyway…and even then, I don’t imagine that Lincoln would have taken to referring himself as those things.

I think that’s what I loved so much; was that he was written as a simple man, with his own ideals on things. We see him as a husband, a father, a man who very clearly works to end the war between the states. I liked seeing this human side to him. We very often glorify people and forget that they too are/were mortal. We only seem to recollect the things he did but never consider, what was Abraham like? The author illustrates this perfectly for us and I couldn’t be happier to have read that. And we are reminded how mortal Lincoln was. We are reminded that he had hopes for the future, that he wanted to travel…there’s so much and one shot of a gun changed all of that. The man who had endured so much in his life, who was looking forward to taking some pleasure in it…was denied that.

I often wonder–what would the rest of his presidency have brought us had he not been killed? Just some food for thought.

I think you’ll really enjoy this book if you’re willing to put aside the glorified view of Lincoln and are willing to see the man, not the legend. The author did a wonderful job of researching and it shows in every page. Yes, the book is a bit long and some sections could have been shortened, but it wasn’t unpleasant. I hope you’ll give it a try. Let me know what you all think of it. (Also, if you listen to the movie soundtrack of “Lincoln”, whilst reading it’s a rather cool experience.)

  • I’d give it ★★★★ stars.
  • I received this in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
  • I highly recommend this to everyone!!

Postscript: My deepest apologies to the author for the lateness in which this review reaches him. I hope you will forgive me.

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About the Author

Jerome Charyn is an award-winning American author. With nearly 50 published works, Charyn has earned a long-standing reputation as an inventive and prolific chronicler of real and imagined American life. Michael Chabon calls him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” New York Newsday hailed Charyn as “a contemporary American Balzac,” and the Los Angeles Times described him as “absolutely unique among American 03_Jerome Charyn_Author Photowriters.” Since the 1964 release of Charyn’s first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays, and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009. In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France. Noted novelist Don DeLillo called Charyn’s book on table tennis, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins, “The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong.” Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.

For more information please visit Jerome Charyn’s website. You can also find him on Twitter and Goodreads.

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2 thoughts on “I Am Abraham {A Review}

  1. secretlifeofemilydickinson says:

    Hi, I’m Jerome Charyn’s partner. We’re both so happy you enjoyed his novel and took the time to write a review. I am intrigued by your idea of using the film to enhance the reading experience – right now the film and JC’s novel are featured at The Morgan Library in its exhibit, Lincoln Speaks. I’d love to send you the audiobook. The actor, Arthur Morey, did an amazing job. Shoot me a message either via http://www.jeromecharyn.com or on the Facebook page for “I Am Abraham,” and I’ll send you the CD – you’ll adore it. Thanks for everything, Lenore Riegel https://www.facebook.com/IAmAbrahamNovel

    Liked by 1 person

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