The Lincoln Hunters
by Wilson Tucker

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Rinehart: New York, 1958
221 pages

December 2011

Lost opportunities

The Lincoln Hunters by Wilson Tucker is a science fiction novel about a specific lost opportunity of history; yet the book itself represents a lost opportunity. Abraham Lincoln gave a number of speeches on the American condition and prospects, deeply thoughtful and inspiring. Some had a demonstrable or even decisive effect upon history, and most exist in Lincoln's drafts or were written down at the time by newspapermen in attendance.

One major public address for which no text ever has been printed is Lincoln's famous "lost speech" at the Anti-Nebraska State Convention in Bloomington. Illinois on May 29, 1856. This gathering became the founding convention of the Republican Party of Illinois, and by all accounts Lincoln's speech was a real stem-winder: so impressive, in fact, that no hearer managed sufficient detachment to take notes, for the newspapers or the historians or us.

So far, so good, as a starting-point: this is a real speech, perhaps a pivotal one, by a towering figure of American history. Unfortunately Wilson Tucker doesn't himself quite seize his own opportunity as novelist.

Under the pressure of the slavery question, the Whig Party disintegrated in the 1850s. The Democratic Party would fission during the 1860 election, following which eleven of the fourteen slave states would refuse to accept the election of Lincoln as President, and attempt to leave the USA. As politically dramatic and troubling as the 1850s were, the perceived risk of civil war and in fact the arrival of that war, infuses the immediate pre-war years with even greater significance.

Tucker begins his plot for The Lincoln Hunters with a museum-like desire of some future Americans seven hundred years after Lincoln's time, to possess a recording of the Bloomington speech. They have carefully-restrained time travel, and are acquisitive. I say museum-like rather than historical, because in this rather dictated-to society, it is of no historical or ethical or personal interest what Lincoln stood for or said. A recording of his speech will be simply another exhibit, rather like a rare postage stamp.

Here is where the plot misses its own opportunity: to integrate Lincoln's ideas (from other speeches around the same year, perhaps) with what is wrong in the far-future America. Tucker clearly values and enjoys the earlier era over the tight future he presents, but what Lincoln might have to do with freedom is barely implied. Of course, in 1958 when this novel was published, one reasonably could assume that Americans were taught at least the rudiments of Lincolnian values in school; but that now is merely crumbled bedrock.

There is a standard time-travelers' paradox of what may happen if some person's sequential visits to the past accidentally overlap. In this story, the time-travelers' theoretical worry of self-cancellation, of ceasing to exist, becomes their major concern in the latter part of the story. This is not bad in itself, but decidedly is no substitute for what Tucker might have done by bringing Lincoln's ideas into the foreground and building them explicitly into his action.

A distraction for myself and some other readers is that one of the time-travelling team is named Bobby Bloch, a drunkenly erratic Shakespearean ham. In real life this is Wilson's friend, prolific fantasy- and horror-fiction writer Robert Bloch (1917-1994), soon to be famous as the author of Psycho (1959). Wilson "Bob" Tucker (1914-2006) was very prominent and important in science-fiction fandom, as was Bloch. The role would be a nice little joke in fan fiction, but it is a lamentably persistent wrong note in a solid pro novel.

The Lincoln Hunters is pleasantly conceived and smoothly written, with a variety of interesting speculation and down-home detail. Tucker conveys his historical period well, and he surely knows and loves the main locale: Bloomington is his home town. But I can't help thinking that with ten or twenty percent more wordage, largely devoted to deftly and explicitly integrating Abraham Lincoln's sublime expression of the grand theme of human liberty, Tucker could have had a real stem-winder of a novel.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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