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'Courting Mr. Lincoln' review: Louis Bayard's intimate novel of Abraham Lincoln's love life

Daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln and wife Mary Todd

Daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln and wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Louis Bayard's new novel fictionalizes their complicated courtship. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

COURTING MR. LINCOLN, by Louis Bayard. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 379 pp., $27.95.

Abraham Lincoln is irresistible to writers. Historians have delved into Lincoln’s depression, his team of rivals, the hunt for his killer. George Saunders won a Man Booker Prize for “Lincoln in the Bardo,” his unorthodox novel about Lincoln mourning his dead son. The 16th president even engaged in a battle against the undead in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer.” (We’re pretty sure he won.)

Now, more than 150 years after Lincoln’s assassination, novelist Louis Bayard weighs in with “Courting Mr. Lincoln,” a rich, fascinating and romantic union of fact and imagination about young Lincoln, the woman he would marry and his beloved best friend.

Google “Was Abe Lincoln gay?” and you can descend down a rabbit hole of speculation. You will discover disputes over 2005’s “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,” in which author C.A. Tripp argued (not entirely persuasively, if you listen to his critics) that the Illinois lawyer had homosexual tendencies.

Bayard’s compelling take on this question is not academic, nor is it a polemic; “Courting Mr. Lincoln” is intimate, warm and, above all, compassionate. Bayard is concerned with the possibilities of the human heart, and he presents an enigmatic Lincoln seen — and loved — from two other points of a romantic triangle.

The author of eight other novels, Bayard is the perfect writer to re-imagine Lincoln’s private life. He has inserted real-life figures into fictional landscapes before, envisioning their lives in new and engaging ways. In “Roosevelt’s Beast,” he reconstructed Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition in the Amazon as a disquieting psychological horror story. In “The Pale Blue Eye,” he enlisted a hard-drinking West Point cadet — you know him as Edgar Allan Poe — to help solve a murder.

In “Courting Mr. Lincoln,” we first meet Mary Todd, an intelligent young woman passionate about politics and frustrated by the constraints on her gender. Bayard’s Mary isn’t the shrew or madwoman you’ll find in other accounts. She’s thoughtful, bold, unsure of her heart but not unaware that she has come to Springfield to find a husband.

“[S]ometimes I feel as if we are soldiers,” she tells a friend. “Because we seek to vanquish. … That’s just the trouble. Say we vanquish them — subdue them by degrees. What do we win? Our own surrender.”

Mary meets Lincoln — he’s always Lincoln to her — at a dance. Awkward and gangly, he is no woman’s romantic ideal: “An El Greco frame, stretched beyond sufferance. A mournful well of eye. A face of bones, all badgering to break through.”

Afterward, asked what she thinks of Lincoln by his companion, a flummoxed Mary responds: “I can only hope that, his waters being so very still, they also run deep.” But she’s drawn to this laconic, ambitious man anyway.

The companion to whom she replies is Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s landlord and, yes, bedmate — beds being hard to come by for poor bachelors like Lincoln. They are close, telling stories in perfect synchronicity like an old married couple and sleeping together every night: “They never bored their listeners with the basic mechanics of sharing a bed — that period in which two bodies come to accommodate each other. … Lincoln’s legs were longer than any bed could comfortably hold. … he had to stay jackknifed under the comforter, his knees sharply bent. Which meant that, if you were going to share the bed with him, you were obliged to mirror his position. There was no choice.”

Until Lincoln meets Mary, Speed assumes he and Lincoln will remain bachelors together. Then a would-be matchmaker reminds him that any aspiring politician needs a wife. He “must marry somebody,” she says, and Speed begins to realize all he can lose.

The story winds through Lincoln and Mary’s courtship, which is not without troubles (only some of them engineered by Speed). Bayard is a master of detail; the smallest factor can weigh heavily, like Lincoln’s frayed cuffs when he comes to court Mary, dismaying her and earning her sister’s contempt.

As Mary’s ambivalence and Speed’s desperation build, emotions grow painful, more fraught. A complex but credible portrait of Lincoln emerges, one that displays his shrewd intelligence, quiet determination and his tenderness toward both his would-be suitors. But perhaps the greatest triumph of “Courting Mr. Lincoln” is how effectively Bayard creates suspense, even when we know how the story ends. Love is love is love, after all, and he invests us deeply in the moving journey of three extraordinary people.

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