Harrigan, Stephen. “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln: A Novel”, Knopf, 2016.
The Springfield Years
“A Friend of Mr. Lincoln” is a look at Abraham Lincoln during a crucially revealing period of his life, the early Springfield years at which time he risked both his sanity and his ethical bearings as he searched for the great destiny that he believed to be his.
During the 1830s and 1840s. Abraham Lincoln lived in Illinois and was a circuit-riding lawyer, a member of the state legislature. He was a man filled with ambition. His friends loved him and he was both very awkward and incredibly self-possessed, His friends felt that he would do great things. Among those he was close to were Speed, William Herndon, Stephen Douglas, and many others who had come to the exploding frontier town of Springfield to find their futures. There was also the poet Cage Weatherby, that we got to know Lincoln in his twenties and thirties and this happened as formative, surprising incidents occurred —his service in the Black Hawk War, his participation in a poetry-writing society and a challenge to a duel that began as a farce but soon rose to be lethal potential. Cage admired and clashed with Lincoln. He was concerned about Lincoln’s legal ethics and his views on slavery. Nonetheless, he was there when Lincoln wavered between high spirits and depression. While Lincoln was recovering from a sad and disastrous courtship with the woman he was to marry Mary Todd, a conflict developed between the two men that caused each to take a separate path. Using the backdrop of history, Harrigan developed rich characters and even more than that, we get to see the young Abe Lincoln that cab only be fictionalized.
We meet Micajah (Cage) Weatherby (he is a fictional character) as he stands anonymously in line to pay The two had not spoken in years, and as Cage makes his way toward the coffin, and afterward wandering the streets of Springfield, he shares his loss of both friend and president. We then flash back to the past and see the two men they were when they were young.
Their first meeting was during the Black Hawk War of 1832, and it shows the problems that would dominate their friendship. Lincoln was a pragmatist and Cage was shaken by the sight of a fallen comrade and looked on as Lincoln walked the dead It was this first encounter together with a shared love of poetry that begat a friendship. Cage would have other opportunities to see Lincoln’s desire for order and coherence when others were either very angry or just looked the other way. Cage had strong abolitionist inclinations, and these are what we see here
An important part of the novel is Lincoln’s tortured, and depression-inducing courtship of Mary Todd Cage had a long-term relationship with his forward-thinking business and lover, Ellie Bicknell although this is not sketched out as much as I would have liked.
Harrigan has the ability to bring this world back to life. He shows us Lincoln as a young man who was like other young men sharing the same torments, infatuations, hopes and sexual appetites as other young men. Despite his willingness to be clever at the expense of others, Lincoln found it necessary to believe in himself and that he was an honorable man. We certainly see that fiction can provide insights into character that are rarely found in non-fiction.