Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Writing Life

On multiple occasions my oldest daughter has declared that she will one day be an author! She always adds a…”just like Daddy.” to the end, though that may just be my creative license/memory kicking in here. In any event, I don’t doubt her. She’s been a storyteller for a long time, especially when she’s blaming her siblings for something broken in the house! But more importantly, she’s been writing some of those stories down. That’s how it starts, and for some of us once that writing bug takes hold, it doesn’t let go. I’m fairly certain that’s the case with her.

As much as I love to hear her say that she wants to follow this writing around like I do, a part of me is reluctant to fully embrace it for her. There are so many things she doesn’t know: the hours spent behind the keyboard wondering if it’s all worth it, the pain of seeing a story fall apart as you try to put it together, the late nights and the early mornings when the story won’t let go and starts driving you crazy, or even just that nagging uncertainty that even if it all comes together will it be worthwhile or will you be the only person ever reads your masterpiece?

Even with the lows, there are awesome highs. They seem to come less often, but they must be the reason those of us who venture those long hours behind the keyboard keep at it. There is the first time you see something you wrote in print (The Power of Teddy Bears), or even scarier…the first time you get to read your writing out loud—mine was on NPR’s This I Believe essay series! (At least it was pre-recorded). Those are the hooks that keep us going, fueling the hope.

This year has brought a bunch of high points for me. I landed in the hands of a great literary agent, Liz Kracht, and she helped me craft my latest novel well beyond my abilities. And just this week Liz sold the book to Oceanview Publishing. Crazy! I’ll finally see my story in print, where I can go into Barnes and Nobles and find it on the rack! That’s the kind of hook that will keep me at this for a long time!

So when Cheyan tells me that she wants to be a writer, part of me wants to tell her about all the little things along the way. But that would be cheating her. She’ll figure it all out when she needs to, and all those trials will make the call from her literary agent that much sweeter…the call where she learns she landed her first book deal! Thanks Liz!

Monday, May 5, 2014

If Lincoln Had Lived?

It's a curious question, isn't it? Exactly the kind of thing I love to explore, a tipping point in history! Next April we'll come across the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's assassination, and this same question is sure to be asked and evaluated by anyone who ever cracked open an American history book. All too often we hear the easy answer. If Lincoln had lived then the period after the Civil War would have been easier, more peaceful. Lincoln would have handled Reconstruction better, so the argument goes. The South would have emerged from the devastation of war earlier with Lincoln at the helm. But the truth, I believe, is far more nuanced—everything with history is.

The first known photograph of Lincoln after clinching the Presidency

Too many of us look back on Lincoln's presidency and the time period leading up to and after the Civil War with distortion of our modern time. How many times have you heard that hindsight is 20/20? The trouble is, hindsight also gets more entrenched the further away you get from the actual events, the more time and memory fade all the little details. It's easy to forget just how unpopular old Abe Lincoln was in the last year of his presidency. He was re-elected in 1864, after putting Senator Andrew Johnson on the ticket to build a larger coalition in countering the Radical Republicans—the elements of his own political party who actively sought retribution from the South for their secession. Lincoln even had to fight for the nomination of his party that year, by stacking the party convention with delegates who owed him their jobs!  It wasn't until just before the general election in Sept 1864 that several Union victories pushed Abe ahead in the polls and secured his second term. How soon we forget...the man we all know as the greatest American President was universally reviled by his party, by the South, even by abolitionists who saw the Emancipation Proclamation as a hollow document. (An excellent review of this is given by Larry Tag at the Civil War Trust.)

And so in 1865 we had an ominous backdrop to our nation, one where the course of history could have flown in almost any direction. The nation was torn apart, reconstruction had barely started, draft riots took place up north, factory workers threatened action if a flood of newly freed slaves made their way north to compete for their jobs, and the War still simmered. Even when General Lee handed his sword to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, uncertainty lingered over the country. A large number of Confederate soldiers in the Army of General Joe Johnston were still at the fight, and Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was on the loose and encouraging Johnston to disband his men and fight on in guerilla warfare.

           General Joe Johnston

That was exactly what Lincoln had long worried over, that the War would linger, drag for years as a burning brush fire marring the country from progress. If General Johnston wanted, he could easily have formed an insurgency the likes of which our nation fought in Iraq, or Afghanistan—small groups of men harassing the countryside and the occupying Northern Armies for years to come. Johnston had nearly 90,000 men at his command, more than enough to extend the fight indefinitely. What Lincoln needed was a clear defeat of the Confederacy, an end to the War that everyone could point to and agree upon. But before he could see that day he took a night out with his wife to catch a play. He never saw the country fully reunited.

Two days later, on April 17th 1865, Johnston met with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who had cut a path of destruction across the South. At that first meeting Sherman handed Johnston a telegraph that told of Lincoln's death. The southern general knew what it meant. He had a decision to make and little time to barter. Lincoln had instructed his generals to go easy on the surrendering armies, to help them back into the fold of the nation. And Johnston argued for this kind of treatment, for a surrender that went beyond pure military terms. In an effort to ease the reconciliation, Sherman relented and agreed to political concessions, such as reinstating state governments and releasing arms to state militias. But officials in Washington rejected the terms of the deal. They found the details too lenient, especially after the death of the President. Revenge was setting in and Lincoln was becoming the Northern martyr. On April 26th 1865, Johnston accepted surrender on purely military terms. By doing so he directly disobeyed orders from Jefferson Davis, who wished the struggle to continue. Johnston knew revenge would come swift from the North—revenge for a fallen President no matter how unpopular he had been.

So we’re left pondering. What would have happened is Lincoln lived? Would Johnston have surrendered? Maybe not. Maybe his men would have blended back into the fabric of the South, dropping their uniforms but taking their rifles and their powder. An insurgency would have erupted, plaguing the nation for years if not decades. Booth never knew the blow he dealt for the Southern cause. Lincoln’s death was a short-term symbolic victory for the dying Confederacy, but ultimately it’s final undoing. And Lincoln may have known, even predicted his own death as the last impediment for the nation to heal. He had dreams and premonitions of his own death, dreams he documented. His friend and confidant, Ward Hill Lamon, claimed that Lincoln dreamt of "the subdued sobs of mourners". During the dream Lincoln asked a soldier who had died. The soldier said, “The President. He was killed by an assassin." That dream was on April 4th 1865. Just 10 days later he paid the ultimate price.

We’ll never know exactly what might have happened if Lincoln had a real bodyguard. But my bet is that the simple answer, the ideal image we have of Old Abe guiding the nation through its time of healing, is just too easy to accept. History is too nuanced, too complex to let us off the hook so easily.

What would America have looked like if Lincoln lived? No one knows…