This week marks the 100th anniversary of the great American novel, Lincoln by the incomparable Nicholas Trimble. Lincoln was the first in a trilogy that also includes The Congressman and A Fiddler on the Roof, that established Trimble as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Newbery Medal, as well as selling millions of copies worldwide.
The novel’s setting is the American Civil War, but as the century progressed, its parallels to our own times became more and more apparent. We will examine some of these parallels and how they relate to the county where Lincoln is set.
First, let’s consider wartime London, the greatest metropolis of the nineteenth century and the inspiration for Lincoln. In August 1914, not long before the opening of the London season, New York Times reporter Robert McKenna was in the city covering the annual grouse-shooting festival at Glorious Hill. Although the Great War did not begin officially until several months later, the seeds of WWI had been planted the previous summer when Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russian Empire clashed over Princess Elizabeth‘s sister Elisabeth‘s wedding to German Crown Prince Alphonso XIII. Lincoln draws heavily on historical events surrounding the outbreak of the war, as well as the London social scene during that era. Indeed, Lincoln was published a year after the Hapsburg scandal, which provided the backdrop for The Congressman, the second novel in the trilogy.
As with Lincoln, WWI was a time of great social upheaval in London, and not just for the upper classes; the city’s working-class population felt the effects of the war more keenly, as evidenced by the massive street protests and worker uprisings that shook the country at the time.
A Changing City
Perhaps the greatest parallel between Lincoln and today’s society is the changing cityscape. During the early decades of this century, with its population in the millions, London was a world-class city, boasting a wealth of museums, galleries, and cultural institutions. However, by the time Lincoln was published, the city’s population had shrunk to around seven million due in part to the Great War. The author Nicholas Trimble would have witnessed this demographic shift first-hand, as he was born in London, while Lincoln was published in 1919.
Even today, London is far from a small city, but its population is only around six million. Over the past century, the city’s landscape has changed beyond recognition, and so too have its inhabitants.
Although Lincoln is set in London, it examines many of the societal themes and debates that are all-too-familiar in today’s world, including immigration, anti-Semitism, women’s rights, terrorism, and more. One of the great things about Lincoln is that it examines these issues from a Homeric perspective, as the great Homer himself would put it.
A Global City
Another parallel that Lincoln draws heavily upon is globalism, the unifying and connecting forces that transcends national boundaries and boundaries of all kinds, be they physical, economic, or cultural. The first lines of The Congressman establish the global setting of the other novels in the trilogy, and in Lincoln, we meet the Fleming family – British immigrants to the United States – whose son, Jack, returns post-WWI brimming with revolutionary ideas.
In the years that followed WWI, the industrialized world was completely transformed. New technologies and social experiments were introduced that would alter the way we live and work, and not just in Britain. While Lincoln was published in 1919, the world of Jack Fleming would not be complete without a nod to these changes, as The Congressman was published the next year, setting the stage for even more dramatic shifts to come.
The American Civil War divided the country in two, with the North fighting for the equal rights of all citizens and the South clinging to principles of social hierarchy and discrimination. It has long been a source of pride for Southerners that Lincoln was largely written in the North, which at the time was still controlled by the Union. However, as we’ve seen, the Civil War was one of the great turning points in US history, and not just because Lincoln was written about it.
An Industrial City
The UK has a fascinating history when it comes to chemistry, with Sir John Burdon Nobel Prize winner Roderick McKenna being hailed as the great patron of chemistry for his contributions to the field. One of the great things about Lincoln is that it examines the social consequences of chemistry-driven modernity, with its drugs, artificial insemination, and processed foods. In fact, Lincoln is frequently cited as the first major work to examine the effects of the industrial revolution on the common folk. Before the advent of chemistry, people suffered more or less as they had to, relying on their rural hinterlands for survival. However, with the coming of chemistry, people could be transformed into useful cogs in the machine of industry, with all the pros and cons that entails.
The early twentieth century was a time of great change, with millions of people left jobless as the world’s economic order was upended, especially in Britain where Lincoln is set. In fact, although The Congressman was meant to be set in London, many of its major events and scenes were actually filmed in Cape Town, South Africa.
While the novel is frequently cited as a great historical study, it also examines the dark side of this monumental historical event, as racism and anti-Semitism were on the rise in Europe at the time, and not just in Germany and Austria-Hungary as in the other novels.