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A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans.

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Of all American presidents, Abraham Lincoln is the one most often accorded something like reverence. Most of us were taught a grade-school version of his life that sketches his triumph over crushing backwoods poverty, his moral conversion to abolitionist beliefs, and his rise to become Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, savior of the Union and martyr to the cause of freedom.

But in Stephen Harrigan’s splendid new novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, we meet a very different Honest Abe. This young Mr. Lincoln is a politically ambitious but socially awkward frontier lawyer of the 1830s and ’40s, one who often falls victim to “the hypo,” meaning depression and anxiety. He is driven by his concept of honor as if by Furies, yet he also relishes using his mercilessly sharp tongue to win at the law or the ballot box. He hates slavery but doesn’t really believe in racial equality. He tells terrible, ribald jokes. He is a fatalist, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is written from the third-person viewpoint of Micajah “Cage” Weatherby, who meets the future president as a roughhewn youth during the Indian wars and later becomes one of Lincoln’s bachelor cronies in Springfield, Ill. (Given that Harrigan wrote the superb historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, it may be no coincidence that “Micajah” also was the first name of an Alamo defender.) Cage Weatherby is a fictitious character, but Harrigan inserts him neatly and believably into Lincoln’s social circle of real-life Springfield friends such as Joshua Speed and Billy Herndon.

Lincoln takes an immediate liking to Cage, in awe that he is a published poet who has traveled to Europe. Cage, meanwhile, knows there is something special about his new friend, no matter that Lincoln is shabbily dressed, reedy-voiced and awkward as a young stork. Ambition burns inside this man, Cage realizes, and he senses that Lincoln is destined for some sort of greatness: “Lincoln was a man people tended to develop a deepening fascination with.” Yet for all the camaraderie they share, Harrigan’s Lincoln remains a riddle even to his best friends.

“The interesting thing about Lincoln,” Joshua Speed remarks to Cage, “is that he’s both the most public man and the most private man I’ve ever known. He has to hover rather precisely between the poles of his personality. Any deviation might pull him apart.”

The turning point in the men’s friendship comes when Kentucky belle Mary Todd arrives in Springfield in 1838. Lincoln is bowled over by the fact that “she knows Henry Clay! She lived only a few miles from him in Lexington and used to visit him as a girl. … It’s like living down the road from George Washington!”

Cage can’t imagine that the refined Todds would ever consider the rustic Lincoln as a possible suitor: “The union of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was as unlikely in theory that night as it would later prove to be in reality.” But Mary is one of those people with a deepening fascination with Lincoln, and like Cage, she senses his potential for greatness.

Lincoln, in turn, knows he needs a political helpmate, and Mary is perfect on paper: a skilled hostess with charm, useful connections and an astute, calculating mind. Nevertheless, Lincoln is reluctant to commit, and the courtship is a long, rocky one. Cage’s efforts to support his friend end up backfiring, and he learns firsthand just how vindictive Mary Todd Lincoln can be.

Harrigan’s previous novels all have been set in Texas, so A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans. His Lincoln is one of them: a young man subject to the same torments, infatuations, ambitions, enthusiasms and sexual appetites as other young men. But unlike the others, he is peculiarly fated to become a tragic, heroic figure whose best speeches are the immortal poetry he yearned to write.

After a century and a half, he also remains America’s most beloved enigma. That homely face and those weary gray eyes guard a well of secrets so unfathomable that we, even as friends of Mr. Lincoln, have yet to plumb its depths.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Plan your life

Stephen Harrigan will speak Thursday, Feb. 4 at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. The 7 p.m. talk is free; a 6 p.m. reception, which includes a signed book, is $30. Register at or 214-523-2240.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Stephen Harrigan

(Knopf, $27.95)

Available Tuesday, Feb. 2.

As one of those annoying people who would rather read a good book than do just about anything else, including work for a living, I have finally found a way to make my obsession semi-respectable: I am anointing myself as a book blogger.

To celebrate, here is the first of what I hope will be a series of blog tours with interesting authors. (And muchas gracias to my baby sister, the blogger known as the Little Fluffy Cat, for recently educating me as to what a “blog tour” actually is.) I’ll continue to write about other subjects, too. But this venture promises to be fun for me, and I hope it will be for you, too.

With that in mind, let’s start the fun now.

Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird

My inaugural blog-tour Q&A is with award-winning Austin novelist Sarah Bird, the author of one of my all-time favorites, The Yokota Officers Club (Knopf). Her seventh and most recent novel, How Perfect Is That, has just been reissued in paperback (Pocket Books, $15). Sarah is a regular columnist for Texas Monthly, and she is also [full disclosure here] a personal friend.

Backstory: I profiled Sarah for The Dallas Morning News shortly after Yokota was published in 2001. We spent a 110-degree summer day toodling around Austin, hitting some of her personal landmarks such as the LBJ Library, the University of Texas, and Seneca House, the real-life Nueces Street co-op that was the setting for Sarah’s first comic novel, Alamo House.

How Perfect Is That

How Perfect Is That

Seneca House makes a major reappearance in How Perfect Is That, which The News called “a perfect, curl-up-with-a-margarita splash of summer fun…wickedly good.” Its heroine, if you can call her that, is Blythe Young, a trailer-trash Cinderella who married up — way up — into Austin society, snagging Henry “Trey” Biggs-Dix III, “a scion of one of America’s wealthiest dynasties.” But now the marriage is kaput and Blythe has been pre-nupped into poverty. She’s trying to maintain her social standing and make a living as a high-end caterer, and she’s failing miserably. How miserably? She can’t afford to get a Pap smear. And her plight gets worse, and skankier, and funnier, by the page.

Here’s the fabulous Sarah Bird, on How Perfect Is That and other writerly topics:

Now that How Perfect Is That is out in paperback, is it safe for you to reveal to us how its hardcover readers reacted to it? Was there a love-hate thing going on there?

Joyce, hello!  What a doll baby you are, in general, but in particular for allowing me to jump into your digital world like this.

It’s quite interesting for me to talk about a book that was published a year ago.  In that year, I’ve read all the reviews — I am definitely not one of those lofty writers who can hold themselves above the fray and ignore reviews — and had lots and lots of discussions about How Perfect Is That.

The one piece of the reaction to this book that is utterly different from any of my others is how stunningly polarized it is.  More than anything else I have ever written, How Perfect does seem to be a love-it or hate-it read.  This came across very dramatically for me in following the reviews on Amazon.  Until yesterday, I had no — none, zero — four- or three-star reviews.  All fives, twos and ones.   (Oh, Joyce, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten one star before, and reading those one- and two-starrers, I did wish I were an above-the-fray author who never bothered herself about such matters.)

This dramatic lack of middle ground has led me to two conclusions:  One, if a book is foisted upon a reader as a “comic novel,” if the foisterer promises that this will book will make you lose bladder control, and if the reader then does not find the book to be a laugh riot, that reader will be mightily irritated.  Irritated enough to let Amazon know about it.  Apparently, novels that are held out to be comic — unlike thrillers, romance, or even general mid-list literary fiction — don’t miss by inches.  They either synch up with a reader’s sensibilities, what he or she thinks is funny, and are a dead-on hit, or they don’t work at all.

Second conclusion:  It can be a challenge to read about a character who makes moral choices that you, the reader, wouldn’t.  My “heroine,” Blythe Young is a user and an abuser.  A striver and a conniver.  A climber and whatever rhymes with –imer.  Bad two-timer?  Annoying street-mimer?  All right, not the last two, but she is a scoundrel.  The big question hanging over the book is, “Can she be redeemed?”  The bigger question that I was addressing was, “Can she be really funny in the process?”

A few months ago, when I needed to make myself feel confused and depressed, I did a bit of self-Googling.  A series of random links led me to a site that proposed that my first novel, published in 1986, Alamo House:  Women Without Men, Men Without Brains, was the first chick lit book ever.  Who knows?  Though someday it might be remarked that How Perfect Is That was the first in another line:  Bitch Lit.

Did your male readers react differently to Blythe than did females?

I’m going to do a dangerous thing and generalize:  Females are much more likely to demand that a protagonist be someone she can relate to.  Not necessarily like, but someone who would make pretty much the same moral choices that she would.  I’d say that this is even truer if the protagonist and the author are female.

Why did you use your old Austin co-op’s real name, Seneca House, this time around — why not make it “Alamo House” again?

Yay!  Thank you, Joyce, for noticing.  When I wrote Alamo House, I used the name of the co-op where I lived while going to graduate school at UT, Seneca House.  Norton published that book and, fearing libel suits, had me expunge all ties to the real world.  They told me I could call the co-op either Magnolia House or Kudzu House.  Okay, that last is a joke, but New York at that time, early eighties, had a much harder time understanding that Texas was not the South.

I’ve was delighted that Knopf had no problems allowing me to use the real name of my old co-op, which I have a great deal of affection for.

Just exactly how much did you know about Austin high society, prior to writing How Perfect Is That? And how much did you have to exaggerate said society for comic effect?

How Perfect Is That involved a different sort of research than I’d ever done before.  For the high-society sections, I had to go to school on fashion, shoes, handbags, which designers are in, which are out, what each one signifies, the whole semiotics of apparel.  Fortunately, many kindhearted souls in high places helped me with the high-society research by sharing their worlds with me, allowing me to glimpse lives that are a round of charity galas, private jets, and Dom Perignon by the crate.

The low-society stuff was much easier since, like my heroine, I did actually live in a UT co-op boarding house called Seneca House while I was getting my master’s at the University of Texas.  But in that day and age, it housed female graduate students.  It has since morphed into a co-ed, mostly undergraduate, sometimes feminist, mostly vegan, generally activist house which the current residents were kind enough to allow me to visit several times.

So both worlds had their own anthropology, and getting the anthropology right is one of my chief joys in writing.  Mostly, though, I found it hilarious imagining what it would be like to have Barbara Bush as your mother-in-law.  What a weekend with that whole crew might be like.

Pretty much everything was exaggerated.

Do you still get nervous before book signings? Are you finding that using “new media” (such as blog tours) has made promoting your books any easier?

Such a timely question since this is, literally, my very first day of book blogging ever and it is making me oddly nostalgic for the old ways and old days.  Alamo House was published in the mid-eighties at about the same time that readings and signing started becoming popular.  Prior to that, practically the only writers who toured had won Pulitzers.  It just wasn’t that common.  So it took a while for me to get comfortable with this new public aspect of writing.

It started to fall into place for me when I started to think of signings as parties and I was the hostess.  It truly all clicked for me with this book.  Because of my heroine’s fondness for all cocktails — be they grain-, fruit-, or chemical-based — I was inspired to ask Tito’s Vodka to be my sponsor.  They agreed, and my mantra became:  A Buzz With Every Book.

Wow, Joyce, end of “nerves” for everyone.  And, P.S., my apologies to your readers who came to signings in any non-indie bookstore, because, gosh darn it, those big corporations just could not get into my Buzz With Every Book program and let me serve cocktails.

So, at this point I don’t know what effects new media will have.  I am kind of sad, though, about anything that keeps people from getting out of their houses and having a cocktail.

Can you talk about the new novel you’re working on? How about the film adaptation of Flamenco Academy — is it really happening?

Yes, I can!  I am ecstatic that Knopf — my dream publisher, home to my dream editor — has given me a contract for the next one which should be out Fall 2010.  It is about a single mom facing the prospect of an empty nest.  She’s worried about her daughter leaving home, and flat-out terrified that her only child won’t go to college.

Joyce, here’s what I say about all film projects I have ever been involved with:  Don’t buy your popcorn until you’re in the lobby.  I would love for that novel [The Flamenco Academy] to become a film.  It’s been optioned by a wonderful producer, Anne Walker, who produced most of Rick Linklater’s films.  I had a grand time adapting it.  And now the script is in the hands of the gods.

Joyce, come back to Austin.  We’ll eat enchiladas at Curra’s.

Sarah Bird is the author of six previous novels, and writes a regular column for the magazine Texas Monthly. Her features appear frequently in other magazines, including Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, and she is also a contributor to She lives in Austin, Texas.