FREEDOM by William Safire
Kirkus Star


Email this review


The first 18 months of the Civil War, up to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation--in a painstakingly chronological, 975-page novel (plus 150 pp. of ""Sources and Commentary"") that earnestly airs dozens of issues, offers close-ups of more than 50 historical figures, yet fails to transform any of the thoughtful quasi-history into involving fiction. Safire halfheartedly tries to make a book-length, vaguely feminist heroine out of Maryland pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll: she is seen arguing against Lincoln's violations of civil liberty, suggesting military strategy (the Tennessee River plan), opposing the Confiscation Bill, and analyzing Constitutional issues; she's also given pointless bits of fictional romantic involvement with Millard Fillmore, Kentucky's John C. Breckinridge (who switches from ""armed neutrality"" to secession), and ambitious Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. But neither Anna nor anyone else here--not even Lincoln--can hold much focus through Satire's unselective morass (166 short chapters) of ill-digested facts and repetitious debates. Sporadic vignettes feature photographer Matthew Brady, Southern spy Rose Greenhow, the conservative-Republican Blair family (vs. abolitionist ""radicals""), Allan Pinkerton of the Secret Service, Jewish chiropodist/courier Isachar Zacharie, assorted newsmen, Jessie FrÉmont, Lincoln's smart-alecky secretary John Hay (via diary entries), along with the inevitables: Stanton, Seward, Grant, Jeff Davis, Lee, the fearsome First Lady, et al. And heavy-handed attention, chronological yet unshaped, is given to two perennially controversial subjects: the escalating conflict between Lincoln and his chief general, George B. McClellan, involving politics, strategy, and opposite views of the war's purpose; and Lincoln's ever-shifting stance on Emancipation, involving a range of motives (from devious to idealistic), the notion of Colonization, and the question of black soldiers in the Union Army. Safire's Lincoln, like virtually all the history here, is admirably complex but thoroughly lifeless. The narrative itself, despite professional touches, is stubbornly undramatic in its relentless Issues-and-Answers dialogue. Moreover, though the period's key battles aren't ignored (Shiloh, Richmond, Antietam, Fredericksburg), Civil War buffs partial to battlefield action and detailed strategy will be disappointed by Satire's far greater interest in Cabinet meetings and political maneuvers. So, despite vast research, intelligent speculation, and timely analysis (a well-meaning President's unconstitutional excesses), most readers will find this impossible as fiction, especially when compared to--among many others--Vidal's sturdy, entertaining Lincoln. And history students (who might want to browse) will wish that Satire--normally so shrewd, even in fiction (Full Disclosure)--had written a compact essay instead of sprinkling his ideas through this worthy but ill-conceived epic.

Pub Date: Aug. 28th, 1987
Publisher: Doubleday