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Review: ‘The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln’ by Stephen L. Carter

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One thing you can say for The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (Knopf, $26.95), the new novel by Yale University legal scholar Stephen L. Carter, is that it’s entirely free of vampires.

That’s just about the end of the good news, unfortunately. Though Carter begins with an exciting premise — Lincoln has survived John Wilkes Booth’s bullet, only to be pulled down into the muck of partisan politics — this is a dreary, endless book, without momentum, intrigue or a character to linger in the mind beyond the last page.

That character ought to be Carter’s heroine, Abigail Canner, a bright young woman from an affluent black family in Washington. As the book begins, she returns home from college determined to become a lawyer, taking a job as a trainee clerk at the firm that will defend Lincoln in the fictional impeachment proceedings of the book’s title.

When one of the firm’s senior lawyers is murdered, however, Abigail — along with Jonathan Hilliman, a white lawyer quick to observe her beauty — starts asking questions. Soon, there are secret codes and old war secrets in play, as well as a trove of enigmatic letters, all of which make it seem that the crime’s solution might have a bearing on Lincoln’s legal fate.

Like most plots, this could be the basis of either a good or a bad book. As executed here, it is a disaster. Problems are rife. Abigail, prepared to struggle against the complex institutional biases of Washington, instead meets a series of men and women implausibly desperate to help her, all of whom proclaim her brilliance before she has done anything brilliant.

Throughout the book, she seems like a cipher. Lincoln’s impeachment proceedings are hideously boring, and worst of all is Lincoln himself, who drops in now and then to tell some sententious, countrified anecdote and to remind Abigail how wonderful she is.

The shame of this is that Carter can, and has, done much better. Indeed, taken together, his five novels come to seem like an important project: a fictional description of the lives of well-established black Americans since the Civil War. Too often, black culture has been reduced in the popular imagination to discontinuous snapshots of poverty. This book’s one true strength is its reclamation of the image of Reconstruction black culture from stereotypes of sharecropping and household service.

With Barack Obama in the White House, Carter’s interests seem especially pertinent, and in this novel, there are echoes of the modern day. (It would be a pleasure to read a work of historical fiction that chose not to draw obliquely on current events.)

Is Carter’s depiction of the Radicals attacking Lincoln an implied rebuke of the progressives attacking Obama from the left? Is Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus a lens with which to view contemporary arguments about terrorism? These questions would be more interesting if we cared at all about the characters who elicit them.

Gannett News Service

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