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Book Review - 'I Am Abraham' by Jerome Charyn

Book Cover
Jerome Charyn

I Am Abraham


The author's note of I AM ABRAHAM is extremely telling. Jerome Charyn starts off by saying, "I never liked Lincoln." So how did he end up embodying the voice of the sixteenth president of the United States for the course of a full-length novel? He found out they had something in common. Charyn continues, "I had a new entry point into Lincoln's life and language—my own crippling bouts of depression."

It takes a tremendous amount of courage for an author to reveal something so personal when it comes to citing a means of inspiration. Kudos to Charyn for opening up about his own struggles with depression and how it colored his perception of an icon, making him human and vulnerable. This sense of camaraderie is apparent in Charyn's understanding approach to a man struggling to maintain some sense of equilibrium as the nation crashed and burned around him.

After reading the book in its entirety, it's amazing how Lincoln was strong enough to hold himself together during such a period of prolonged crisis. While working his way up the political ladder as a young man in Illinois, Lincoln was overcome on multiple occasions by his mental illness that one time he didn't leave his dwelling for the entire month of January and tried to harm himself on another. But facing a war that was the bloodiest in American history, Lincoln couldn't take to his bed and shut out the world. He was the commander in chief of the Union forces. His attitude set the tone for rest of the country. Even if he wanted to run and hide from the calamity at his doorstep, he couldn't. The strain that must have placed on his psyche is hauntingly rendered by Charyn.

What's even more remarkable is that Charyn shows how Lincoln didn't have much of a support system in place. His wife was mentally unstable. His eldest son never said more than two words to him, and his younger son wasn't old enough to hear about his burdens. His cabinet members bickered and quarreled among themselves. His generals were after his job. The press analyzed every move he made, and the American public was quick to cast blame for every mistake and every battle lost. Essentially, he had no one to turn to. Without any available antidepressants, psychological counseling or group therapy, it's a miracle in and of itself that he never suffered a breakdown while in office.

Charyn paints Lincoln as The Great Sufferer, illustrating how much he went through over the course of a relatively short life. From his rustic, primitive childhood shackled to an abusive father to coping with year after year of poverty and failure as a penniless, uneducated man trying to rise in the ranks, it's simply incredible how Lincoln was able to achieve as much as he did with the deck so clearly stacked against him.

But Charyn's writing style is sort of like looking at Lincoln with one eye closed. The book transports the reader into hallucinogenic state, like taking a hit off a joint while thumbing through unfamiliar milestones in the life of someone so famous. Charyn gets into the emotions and thoughts of Lincoln the man, the women he loved, the insecurities he harbored, the lack of driving ambition he fostered. This isn't the Lincoln of dates and battles and speeches. It's a look behind all of those facts and into the memories that might've been most important to him, instead of the way history defined him. Charyn conducts his own kind of seance with a man who inspired so many. He's one of the few able to conjure the true essence of Lincoln's soul, chiseling him out of heartfelt pathos instead of cold, hard marble. It's a beautiful and moving tribute of one melancholy mind saluting another through their shared passion for the written word. For over four hundred pages, Charyn proudly declares, "I am Abraham," and for the reader his approach is nothing short of believable.

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