Allusions to Abraham Lincoln in American literature are legion, if one looks into memorial poetry, recollective works on the heroism of soldiers, and, these days, even murder mysteries. ‘What-if’ stories, including plays, about catching Booth early, stopping Booth in the act, or keeping the Lincolns from attending the theatre might fall into this category of ‘invention as sympathy’ in creative writing.
Yet the novel called by some THE Great American Novel may also include a Lincoln figure, at least by analogy. “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” — this is what old-money Tom Buchanan called nouveau-riche Jay Gatsby during the very tense scene in the Plaza Hotel about halfway through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. Old-money Tom, enraged that Gatsby could pursue and apparently win the heart of his wife Daisy Buchanan (who was from Kentucky), moved the inter-personal confrontation up a notch: “next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” (Collier Books, 1980 reprint, p. 130). In other words, no sooner could ‘society’ allow a low-born nobody to capture the affections of a well-bred lady, than not even skin color would serve as a social marker.
Could F. Scott Fitzgerald have had in mind the social revolution by which a railsplitter married the high-born Mary Todd (who was from Kentucky), then sets the blacks free? Tom Buchanan … James Buchanan … equal social status for blacks and whites … a mystery man from nowhere (Duluth, Minnesota, for Jay Gatz; New Salem, Illinois, for Abe Lincoln) … a revolution in affairs. How did the son of a “wandering laboring boy,” as Lincoln described his father Tom, even meet the high-born Mary Todd, much less marry her? One may easily see Fitzgerald’s hearkening to the life and times of the 16th President, in the White House, through that mise en scène at the Plaza.
And Fitzgerald, despite his own rearing in St. Paul, was something of a Confederate sympathizer – proud of his descent from Marylander Francis Scott Key; married to Zelda Sayre, the belle of Montgomery, Alabama. On that Maryland side of his father’s, Fitzgerald was related to Mary Surratt, whose house served as the meeting place for the assassin John Wilkes Booth. At the height of his career, Fitzgerald was chosen to spruce up some dialogue for the screenplay of Gone With the Wind, surely a Southern apologist’s dream-job.
The Great Gatsby is not really a political novel. The genius of Fitzgerald in not staking out a firm moral position between his contesting main characters is analagous to Lincoln’s own genius in refusing to express political malice or denominational preferences during the brothers’ war of the 1860s. Both Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby seem to have unlikable characteristics; so too Lincoln felt in 1854 that Southerners “are just what we [Northerners] would be in their situation.” And in 1862 that “the people of the South are not more responsible for the original introduction” of slaves than are people of the North.
So it is not the likability or unlikability of a person, based upon background or manner, that makes Lincoln an epochal figure. And it is not the historic importance of individuals like Tom Buchanan or Jay Gatz who make them interesting men. But it is the melding together of these two strands of notability that Fitzgerald employed in his novel. He chose names and settings that mirrored the struggle over white/black and rich/poor relations in the 1920s, when the Toms were fading and the nouveau-riche American Jays were in the ascendant. He chose them because a nobody called Abe (from a nowhere northern town) started being called ‘Abraham,’ won the heart of a belle named Mary (who was from Kentucky), and gave his life that the black man might be free — thereby providing an excellent case-study of the great American dream.