The premise is a fascinating one: a book about Abraham Lincoln before he declared his intention to run for president, written from the perspective of a young man who spent hours documenting his work in the courtroom. The murder case Lincoln is litigating is dramatic, his community is torn, and he has personal entanglements with the parties involved.
Robert Hitt is hired to be the old-timey equivalent of a court reporter, writing down word for word everything said during the proceedings. Earlier in the year he had worked at Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas, and when his transcripts were released to the press Lincoln’s star rose considerably given the power of his statements.
Unfortunately, the first-hand account is what makes the book so awkward. I wanted to like it. I learned a lot from the narrative but found it very hard to believe that Hitt himself actually thought what the authors wrote he was thinking. I understand that a prodigious amount of research went into their conjecture, and that at some point you have to suspend belief in order to engage with the story, however, this book is marketed as a work of non-fiction, and it’s just tough to buy it.
Another disconnect I felt was if the authors wanted to strictly present the trial transcript, they should have done exactly that. Instead, they mix in a word for word account of the proceedings with all kinds of historical context, which is wonderfully interesting, plus the “thoughts” of Hitt. So for example one chapter may contain the following: The dramatic transcript of the questioning of some witnesses.. plus, Hitt wondering where he should put the quotation marks in a sentence or two, because he is not sure whether the person who said the words meant them to be a direct quote or not, so he resolves to look it up after that day’s proceedings conclude, plus some musings on the temperature in the courtroom, an account of how the court house was built and a few funny lines about how people were afraid to lose their prime seats in the courtroom if they go outside to use the latrine.
All in all it made for a clunky read which could have been a lot more satisfying if just one path was selected and pursued, instead of the authors attempting to go down five roads at once in order to achieve something greater.