Write down five facts that you know about Abraham Lincoln. Struggling to think of five? Don’t feel bad, so were the students at the beginning of professor Tony Wolk’s class Lincoln in Literature this term.
Wolk has taught at Portland State since 1965, but this is his first time using his own novel in his classroom. Lincoln Out of Time explores what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had never been assassinated. The trilogy alternates between Abraham Lincoln traveling forward in time to 1955 and characters traveling back into his time. Lincoln’s Daughter, the third book in the trilogy, was just published by Ooligan Press.
The Vanguard recently met with Professor Wolk to talk about writing, teaching and Abraham Lincoln.
Sarah Hutchins: What gave you the inspiration to write this novel?
Tony Wolk: I began to write a novel about Abraham Lincoln because I found a book of his writing and found it fascinating to read something written by a historical president. I wondered what Joan thought when Abraham Lincoln left her that day. The second question I had was who sent the letter. What if it wasn’t a benign person? This gave me an antagonist.
SH: How do you think that the world would be different if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated?
TW: During the last speech that he gave, John Wilkes was in the audience and that’s when he decided to assassinate President Lincoln. One of the things Lincoln talked about was black males voting. He didn’t say that all could vote, but definitely soldiers and maybe ones who were educated. He said “malice toward none” and Johnson’s rein was malicious. I think we would be a friendly country—total speculation. I didn’t have to worry about it too much, but it would have been a good thing.
SH: How did you come up with the name “Sarah” for Lincoln’s fictional daughter?
TW: Sarah so happens to be the name of my youngest daughter. I don’t know if I could take credit for making the brilliant decision to name her after Lincoln’s grandmother Sarah Johnson. Joan named her, not me. Sarah Lincoln was Abraham’s stepmother. She outlived Lincoln after the assassination. She was the person that he visited when he was elected before he left for the White House.
SH: When did your admiration for Abraham Lincoln begin?
TW: I picked a book off the shelf. It was The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by John Hay and John Nicolay, his two secretaries. I just started flipping though it. I saw all these personal letters, ‘Thank you for the can of salmon.’ A lot of soldiers were pardoned. I saw a person so serious about being the president…. There are no vacations for Abraham Lincoln. I carried the book with me from class to class. I was finishing another book at the time and I suddenly threw Lincoln into the story.
SH: A lot of people have been comparing Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Do you think that they are similar?
TW: Obama sees it. Yes. He sees himself as a person of candor. He’s an honest man. He’s dedicated to the same kind of principles as Abraham Lincoln was dedicated, the proposition that all men are created equally. He takes it seriously. We’ve had other presidents who have done that—Jimmy Carter. There’s something of a diminished ego. They’re not there to lead but to reflect on the nation.
There’s a phrase that Lincoln used in a speech or letter explaining why it was important to sustain the union: “The last best hope on earth.” That’s how Lincoln wanted the rest of the world to see the United States. That’s what I think Obama wants. He wants this country to be valued and respected and used as a model for other nations.
SH: How has your teaching affected your writing?
TW: Sometimes I write the same time as my students. It’s not competitive. Students shouldn’t be in competition with each other; people shouldn’t be in competition with each other. I’ve written 11 novels that way. I owe a lot to my students. My writing is interwoven with my teaching.