“Lincoln”: Lessons for Historical Fiction
Posted by: Brad Hooper
As an abiding student of history, I hold our sixteenth president in the highest regard. Lincoln is my greatest hero because I am a son of Lincoln Land, born in Vandalia, the second capital of Illinois, where he served in the state legislature, and raised in Mattoon, only a few miles from the farm wrested by his father and stepmother from the Illinois woods and prairie after their departure from Indiana (and even closer to the Moore Home, where the widowed Sarah Bush Lincoln spent her last years and received her beloved stepson for the last time on the eve of his departure for Washington as President-elect).
It was not with trepidation but only with intense curiosity did I step into a movie theater to see the much-heralded Spielberg movie Lincoln. I can only add my voice to the universal praise of this remarkable movie, supporting what critics and the movie-going public have pointed out as virtues: chief among them, the total immersion of Daniel Day-Lewis into the historical Lincoln, or rather, the complete assumption of Lincoln into the actor’s being, to the point where no separation between the two is observable.
A devotee of Lincoln and an avid appreciator of books about him and Mary Todd Lincoln, I am also a partisan of historical fiction. Perhaps it is uncommon for an intense reader of history to stand equally in the fictional side of history writing, but storytelling is the common denominator between the two, as far as I’m concerned. History well written has a compelling narrative drive, as does successful historical fiction. So, what impressed me even further about the masterpiece that Lincoln the movie is, in addition to its merits as cinema, was its affinity to the traits of the best of historical fiction, even though, of course, the movie was as much a “nonfiction” treatment as a non-documentary can get. The scriptwriter, as would a historical novelist sensitive to the most dramatic and efficient way of conveying character, event, and time period, chose a relatively small episode in the entire life-story of Lincoln and the history of his presidency—the passage of the Constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery—to illustrate in a heightened and concentrated—but entirely true to history—fashion the essence of the point of the movie: Lincoln as politician.
It’s a movie to teach how best to write historical fiction! Who’d a thunk it!