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‘And Dream Such Dreams’ by Lee Allred

July 9, 2009

lincoln-monumentIn September 2008, Down East Books released an anthology of short stories edited by Noreen Doyle entitled Otherworldly Maine, featuring a myriad of tales relating to, or inspired by the old, rich and storied state of Maine, 23rd state in the Union.  Author and Sidewise Award for Alternate History finalist Lee Allred submitted a short story for the publication entitled And Dream Such Dreams, a poignant tale set during the American Civil War in which President Abraham Lincoln plays a central role, while sharing a peculiar connection to ancient Greece and the principles of funerary rites aptly summarized in the phrase — “parainesis of the living, epainesis of the dead” or admonishment for the living, praise for the dead as Allred explains.  But how do Greek funerary rites connect President Lincoln, a  mysterious professor who begins visiting him nightly in his dreams, and the American Civil War?

Real world Civil War hero Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain opens the story addressing the audience at the Dedication of the 20th Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3, 1889 stating:

‘We know not of the future,’ he concluded, ‘and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action.’  The audience politely clapped and came up to shake his hand. The crowd milled about for a while until, as if on cue, it slowly melted away, leaving Chamberlain to stand silently alone.

But such as it was, the audience hadn’t quite grasped what Chamberlain had been trying to say and it will take Abraham Lincoln, Assistant Private Secretary John Hay and the lessons of a Greek professor for the readers themselves to truly understand the weight of his words by stories end.

Comments: I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with author Lee Allred on several occasions now and he’s nothing if not a thoughtful individual with vivid imagination, quick wit, and civil_lincoln2a deep respect for virtue — all of which that’s on full display in the short story And Dream Such Dreams.  Told from three compelling points of view, we follow President Lincoln through a pivotal phase in the Civil War, enjoying insights unique to each of the storytellers.  Allred’s literary method allows the reader to slowly form a whole of the puzzle that’s laid before him following the cryptic comments in Chamberlain’s opening speech as the narrative becomes ever clearer as we travel with our heroes through the soles of their individual experiences — not unlike an interested observer in a dream — towards the conclusion in this worthwhile tale of deep humility and self sacrifice.

And let me say that while I likely could have walked away from the short story pleased with what I was able to glean about the historical figures from the details scattered throughout, I would reckon that Allred deserves a pat on the back for not only creating an authentic sense of who the characters were but for creating a desire, at least in my case, to find out more about their triumphs through the historical scholarship available on each, particularly where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Hay were concerned (as I’ve long enjoyed learning about Lincoln).   In the end, no words were wasted and like all good works of fiction and non-fiction alike there was some cause for introspection…and application.  Definitely do yourself a favor and enjoy Lee Allred’s unique take on President Lincoln, his friends, and the glimpse into what makes good men great.

Chamberlain’s hand brushed his side. The wound from Petersburg should have killed him, but he had been spared for a reason, as if part of a bargain.

Following the stories conclusion I wrote Mr. Allred once more to inquire further and he was kind enough to take the time to provide some valuable feedback as to some of the inspiration for the tale, a little as to why he holds President Lincoln in high esteem, and other valuable insights — so I hope you’ll take a moment to sit back and enjoy the detailed commentary he provided:

Having read To Dream Such Dreams and East of Appomattox (found in Alternate Generals III from Baen Books) it goes without saying that the two stories are deeply trenched in the American Civil War, its lore and its heroes. If you don’t mind expounding further, what was it about that period in American history that initially inspired you to make it the setting of ‘To Dream Such Dreams?’

Connie Willis, in her forward to her magnificent novel LINCOLN’S DREAMS, wrote:

“In the first part of Lincoln’s Dreams, Jeff [the main character] is offered a job researching the long-term effects of the Vietnam War. He turns it down. ‘I’m busy studying the long-term effects of the Civil War.’ And I guess that’s what I was doing, too, writing this book.

Because the Civil War isn’t over. Its images, dreamlike, stay with us — young boys lying face-down in cornfields and orchards, and Robert E. Lee on Traveller. And Lincoln, dead in the White House, and the sound of crying.”

I refer to my “To Dream Such Dreams” as a ghost story. And it is, but in more than the usual sense. The Civil War  itself is a ghost story. It’s a haunting. Even after 144 years — an aptly termed gross of years, a dozen dozen — it haunts us still. It haunts me still.

Lincoln giving his farewell in Springfield, knowing — knowing! — beyond all mortal reason that he will never return. The Union boys at Fredericksburg, clutching the shattered frozen corpses of their friends, ghoulishly pressing against them for their fading warmth in the icy night, then those same boys standing victorious at the stone wall at Pickets Charge, chanting “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” in awful and just revenge against the shattered Confederates fleeing the field. Lincoln begging, pleading to the South “We must not be enemies, but friends.” The agony of four simple words four long, bloody years later: “And the war came.”

I’ve had the good fortune of visiting several of the Civil War battlefields: Pea Ridge, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga. Something indeed abides. And each time I get the feeling that Joshua Chamberlain spoke of across the veil of time: “And reverent men and women from afar and generations that know us not and that we know not of, shall come here to ponder and to dream and the power of the vision shall pass into their souls.”

Likewise, it’s fascinating that you tied principles of ancient Greek funerary rites to Abraham Lincoln and the tragic fate that felled him in the spring of ’65 following the war, and I’m curious what it was about the Greek ideal of ‘admonishment for the living, praise for the dead’ that led you back to the legendary president?

Well, I can’t claim credit for the original Greek idea. Several years Garry Wills won a Pulitzer for his non-fiction book, LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG. Wills explored in great detail the parallels between Greek funeral oration and the Gettysburg Address. The first time I picked up a book and read the back copy (which made it sound almost as if Lincoln purposely copied Greek oratory), my first thought was “As if!” Lincoln, self-educated on the Prairie, like Shakespeare before him, had only a “little Latin, less Greek.” Lincoln didn’t know enough Greek to do it on purpose.

Then, like a true science fiction author, my next thought immediately was: “But someone who did know enough Greek was Joshua Chamberlain!”

I didn’t finish writing “To Dream Such Dreams,” though, until after I had served three rotations in Iraq. The concept of “admonishment for the living, praise for the dead” has a very new, very different, very concrete meaning for me now than it did the younger Lee Allred who first picked up the Wills book.

I came to the quick conclusion (heh) that you held President Lincoln in a high esteem, and wondered if you might share something with readers that you’ve found to particularly inspiring about the 16th President of the United States?

You may have heard the claim that, next to Shakespeare and Christ, more books have been written about Lincoln than any man who ever lived. And yet, no matter how many books are written about him, the definitive Lincoln still eludes us. He is a chameleon figure. The Lincoln of each of those books is whichever Rorschach Lincoln the respective historian wants to believe in.

The specific Lincoln I chose to write about (as a fiction writer — an entirely different prospect than writing as a historian) is the religio-mythic Christus figure. The Savior of the Republic. The American Moses who was not allowed to see the fruits of his victory. The dark, brooding melancholy man who dreamed dreams and saw visions, dreams of the black boat, visions of his own death.

Do I think that that is the real Lincoln which existed or even could exist? The Lincoln I wrote about would be called in my own culture “a prophet, seer, and revelator.” I leave it at that.

Repeatedly in “To Dream Such Dreams” I refer to General Daniel Sickles’ account of Lincoln’s desperate prayer for victory during the ongoing battle of Gettysburg. I have added only one thing to that account: the proffered bargain, Lincoln’s life for the Union’s.

Lincoln repeatedly referred to himself as an Instrumentality in God’s Hands — “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right”. Lincoln, like the other great figure of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, repeatedly spoke of the payment of debts. (Robert E. Lee’s last conscious words were “I will pay that sum,” as readers of “East of Appomattox” will well note.) Much of Lincoln’s sublime Second Inaugural Address speaks of the debts that must be “sunk” (paid):

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”

The proffered bargain I added as fiction is thus not entirely out of character, but then, is it truly fiction? Perhaps I merely added was really there all along.

Standing on that railcar platform at Springfield, Lincoln’s words were those of a man who knew he’d never return. His words and actions the day of Ford’s Theatre were of a man who seemingly knew what lay ahead. It is not so difficult to imagine Lincoln that evening as he left for the theatre, taking one last look around him at the nation he preserved and saying, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter but I am calm as a summer’s morning.”

What, if anything, are you currently reading and what might you recommend that might have slipped under our reader’s radar?

Science fiction, Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta series (TRADING IN DANGER is the first book) is how military science fiction shoot-em-ups ought to be written. LINCOLN’S DREAMS by Connie Willis is what “To Dreams Such Dreams” wants to be when it grows up. RULED BRITANNIA by Harry Turtledove is an alternate history tour de force.

Non-fiction: I’m studying Shea’s PEA RIDGE: CAMPAIGN IN THE WEST, the definitive book on the crucial-but-overlooked Civil War battle in Northwest Arkansas. I also just picked up (surprise, surprise) another biography of Lincoln: William Lee Miller’s LINCOLN’S VIRTUES: AN ETHICAL BIOGRAPHY. It promises to be a good read.

What’s next for Lee Allred on the literary front?

I don’t talk about what I’m currently working on. Sorry. Long-standing policy.

I can talk a little about what’s in the publishing pipeline. I should have a short-story titled “Hymnal” coming out in a reprint anthology coming out soon. The story’s about the far future and the heat death of the universe. It first appeared in a collection that had very, very, very, very low distribution, so it’s more like a brand new first publication for the piece. Release details are still in play. I’ll post details at my leeallred.com website when I have them.

…….

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