The Last Temptation of Lincoln and other TwiStories
Wallace Baine’s “The Last Temptation of Lincoln” is a whimsical, often poignant collection of sharply drawn and darkly comic fictional stories starring many of the most well-known figures in history from Christopher Columbus to Benjamin Franklin to Oscar Wilde.
These “TwiStories,” as they are known, aren’t drawn from any history book. They are historically accurate tales, with one enormous narrative exception at the core of the story, where history meets speculative fantasy.
To take the title story as a example, it is a part of the historical record that Abraham Lincoln had an intense courtship as a young man with a woman named Ann Rutledge who died at 22 of typhoid and that he may have considered Ann the love of his life. It’s also true that the woman he eventually married, Mary Todd Lincoln, conducted seances in the White House, that Lincoln would often evade his bodyguard and walk the streets of Washington at night and that the Potomac River was a lot closer to the White House in Lincoln’s day than it is now.
What’s not so well-documented – except, that is, in “The Last Temptation of Lincoln” – is that the ghost of Ann Rutledge visited Lincoln during the terrible year of 1863 in a tragicomic effort to get him to fall out of love with her so he could focus on leading the country through its darkest hour.
Much of the details in “Voyage of the Rodrigos,” about the epochal voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World, were drawn directly from Columbus’s diaries. The diaries did not mention, however, that there was one brooding, rebellious, wise-cracking sailor on board who had figured out everything Columbus had not. You’ll find that only in “Rodrigos.”
Was there a secret, off-the-books mission to the moon shortly after Apollo 11 to retrieve Neil Armstrong’s car keys and set right the American flag that had toppled over in the lunar dust? History says no, but in the hilarious TwiStory “Apollo 11½,” the plausible becomes possible.
How did Oscar Wilde dream up his famously droll last words? What if the first emissary to ever come back from the afterlife was a chatty middle-aged woman from Oklahoma? Was the real inspiration for the founding documents of the nation a precocious underage Philadelphia prostitute? What would happen if a colonial tobacco farmer from the 1730s were flung into the modern day and then back again to his own times to explain to his bewildered friends and neighbors what the 21st century is like?
With a foreword by Mark Twain – OK, the long-dead disembodied spirit of Mark Twain – “The Last Temptation of Lincoln” is a delightful romp through the what-if realm of the past, present and future, infused with a buoyant, bawdy sense of humor in the service of enlightening readers on how we think about history and our place in it.
For an opportunity to meet the author check out our Events page.
The Sentinel printed an article: “Give me 10 minutes” about the 10 minute plays in “8 Tens @Eight” which included Wallace Baine’s play from the new book, The Last Temptation of Lincoln and other TwiStories, and a great sidebar about the Oscar Wilde story in the book.More information was in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, The Guide, January 8- 14, 2015
|Jan-Feb. 2015||“Oscar Wilde is Dying” made into play, “Oscar’s Wallpaper” performed in Center Street Theater, Santa Cruz, CA during “8 Tens @ Eight Festival”|
|Feb. 2015||“Voyage of the Rodrigos" reprinted in “Catamaran” Magazine, Santa Cruz|
|Mar. 5||Live reading, Bookshop Santa Cruz|
|March 6||Felton Art Walk, Book signing at The Satellite, Felton, CA|
In the dark, pre-dawn hours of January 20, 2009, I found myself in Washington, D.C., almost 3,000 miles from my California home. It was a particularly cold night, maybe as cold as I’ve ever experienced in my life. But at noon on that day, Barack Obama was set to be inaugurated as president on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and I felt I had to be there to witness history.
I traveled to D.C. with my brother Michael and my teenaged daughter Quinlyn. Since we were somewhat panicked by press reports that there might be a million people or more on the Washington Mall that day, we decided to get there early—insanely early. Sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., we walked three abreast almost alone over the closed-to-traffic Arlington Bridge from Virginia into D.C.
The bridge crosses the Potomac River—much of which was literally frozen over that day—and comes into the city near the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. With the sky still showing no signs of daylight, we walked up the marble steps of the Memorial, stood briefly where Martin Luther King Jr. had stood to tell the world about a dream he had back in 1963 and entered the sacred chamber where Abraham Lincoln sat gazing upon the Capitol in the distance.
There were a few people wandering in and out, even at that gruesome hour. But at one point, after I had already lingered for about 20 minutes, I looked around and found that I was alone, standing at the feet of Lincoln on the very day that, for the first time ever, an African-American would become President of the United States.
I was deeply moved by the majesty of that moment and began reflecting not on what Lincoln meant to history, but what he meant to me, and how everyone who had ever stood where I was standing came to Lincoln with their own personal vision of the man.
This is where this book started for me. Standing alone in the Memorial that frigid morning, I felt a genuinely personal connection to this Illinois country lawyer. But is what I believe about Lincoln strictly true to history? And does that even matter?
Among Lincoln’s many nicknames is “The Great Emancipator.” Historians will tell you that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863 only as a war tactic to undermine the Confederacy, that he never believed in the abolition of slavery as a ideal, and that his order only applied to slaves in states not even under federal control, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in bondage. In strictly historical terms, the Proclamation was a narrowly defined, unenforceable bureaucratic document.
But that historical truth has done nothing to stop the broadly held idea that Lincoln freed the slaves, won the war and finally redeemed the American credo that “All men are created equal.” If “the devil is in the details,” then God must be in the long view.
Historical figures—the few at the top of the pyramid of eternal fame, anyway—occupy a unique niche in our imaginations. They are something more than mere celebrities. Yet they aren’t quite mythological gods, either.
Caesar, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, Washington, Gandhi, JFK were all, of course, real people. We are bound by honor and history to respect the documented facts of their short human life spans and the times in which they lived.
Yet they are also symbols that carry larger meanings of the human story, deeply resonant illustrations of good and evil, struggle and triumph, talent and vision, martyrdom and madness.
Accordingly, the greatest figures from the past fit uncomfortably in the realm of both history and myth. They belong in a narrow sense to the historians and descendants who are steeped in the facts of their lives. But they also belong to the rest of us in a more expansive sense, as icons onto which we can project our own dreams and passions.
In this collection of stories, we open up history to the possibilities of fiction—fantastical, comical, speculative fiction. What if all the noble ideals enshrined in the American Revolution came from one especially precocious orphaned 13-year-old girl living in a Philadelphia brothel? What if there were a secret, off-the-books Apollo moon mission launched to pacify a paranoid president? What if someone found the journal of a rebellious contrarian seaman who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his historic voyage to the “New World” and saw plainly what Columbus was too vain or arrogant to see?
Of course, these offbeat stories would not work if they were not grounded in historical fact. In “The Last Temptation of Lincoln,” President Lincoln is visited by the ghost of Ann Rutledge, the long-dead love of his life, an event that we can be confident in declaring did not actually happen. But the romance between a young Abe Lincoln and the doomed Miss Rutledge was very real and there is strong evidence to suggest that Lincoln would have married her if she had lived. It’s also true that spiritualism—visitations from ghosts—was a real 19th century phenomenon across America and that Mary Todd Lincoln actually conducted a séance in the White House.
In the middle of 1863, when our story takes place, Lincoln was under the kind of intense pressures that few leaders in the history of the world had ever faced – a war very much in doubt, a country coming apart, the world’s first experiment in self-government on the verge of failure, his party abandoning him, his family in crisis and his own heart broken by the unexpected death of his 11-year-old son Willie the year before. If anyone was ripe for a ghostly visitation it was Lincoln at that moment.
Some of these “TwiStories,” as we call them, don’t feature a historical figure at all. “The Bewildering Blasphemies of Thomas McAvee” attempts to get a perspective on how far we’ve come technologically by plopping a Colonial-era tobacco farmer in the modern day, then rubber-banding him back to his own time to try to explain to his contemporaries the world of today.
That’s the TwiStory blueprint: Historically accurate contexts with one giant, wildly inaccurate conceit at its center, whether it’s the supernatural, time travel or just absurd speculation.
These stories aren’t a challenge to history. They are, instead, an invitation to those who have always thought of history as a narcotic slog of dates and battles to refresh their view of the past and realize that it is as full of drama and passion as the present. It’s an attempt to reflect on these icons of the past and give them fictional narratives that get closer to what they mean for us as symbols.
Historians may very well resist the idea of history’s greatest figures and events being used as props for fictional fable. After all, the facts are hard enough to pass along through the generations without made-up stuff getting in the way. The old story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree in his youth and then copping to it because “I cannot tell a lie” was itself a lie, or at least an exaggeration. It was an invention of a writer named Parson Weems as an anecdote to illustrate Washington’s integrity, and has been cited for generations as a cautionary tale of how propaganda and fable can contaminate history.
The difference with “TwiStories” is that we aren’t trying to fool anyone. Ideally, these stories are entertainment for those who already have a firm handle on their history, or as a gateway to explore the real story behind the TwiStory. Acknowledging that it’s important to keep factual history and imagination in separate jars, what’s the harm in mixing the two together occasionally to make a third thing? Aren’t Lincoln, Columbus and Ben Franklin big enough to handle a little playful mythologizing?
Table of Contents
The Last Temptation of Lincoln
Oscar Wilde is Dying
The Bewildering Blasphemies of Thomas McAvee
Press After Life After Death
The Voyage of the Rodrigos
The Founding Daughter
The Eternal Torments of Millard Fillmore
Myth-making at its most mischievous
Award winning writer Wallace Baine plays fantasy historian with nine wildly entertaining “TwiStories.” Each story is historically accurate to their respective eras … except for the time travel, supernatural visitations and comic absurdities.