John Wilkes Booth and the literature of rejection

  John Wilkes Booth circa 1865. Photograph by Alexander Gardener. Courtesy Library of Congress.

John Wilkes Booth circa 1865. Photograph by Alexander Gardener. Courtesy Library of Congress.

A few posts ago, I talked about “The Literature of Rejection,” a course troubled quarterback Quinn Novak takes at Stanford in the upcoming “The Penalty for Holding,” the second novel in my series “The Games Men Play.”

The fictional course looks at the men – literary and historical – who had a disproportionate rage at rejection and so took terrible revenge as assassins, mass murderers and tyrants. Among them is John Wilkes Booth, who shot President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. 150 years ago April 14 – Good Friday that year. (Lincoln died on April 15 – the same day the RMS Titanic would sink in 1912. April 15 is now also the deadline for income taxes, so death and taxes.)

The kind of men – and they are almost always men – who make up the literature of rejection are much in the news these days. Andreas Lubitz said he was going to do something others would notice and then took 149 people with him to his death aboard the Germanwings plane that he crashed in the French Alps. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, just convicted in the Boston Marathon bombings that eerily enough also took place on April 15 (2013), is the subject, along with his brother and co-conspirator Tamerlan, of the new book “The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy” by Masha Gessen (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 273 pages).

And there’s a new book on Booth, “Fortune’s Fool” by Terry Alford (Oxford University Press, $29.95, 464 pages).

Alford’s book, praised by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer in The Wall Street Journal as “so deeply researched and persuasively argued that it should stand as the standard portrait for years,” is inclined to repetition. If we read that Booth was handsome and well-liked once, we must read it 10 times. But Alford does offer insight into the mind of this assassin, a man who yearned to do something great on the world stage but lacked the mind, character and discipline to achieve it.

Booth (1838-65) was one of the younger sons of Junius Booth, a successful Anglo-American actor based in Baltimore. Alford’s book offers a perfect storm of lethal dysfunction: Mentally unstable, alcoholic father, check. Indulgent mother, unable to cope, check. Older brother (Edwin) who overshadows him on the stage, check. Burning ambition and an almost religious zeal combined with an intellectual mediocrity and lack of stick-to-itiveness, check. And perhaps most important, the ability to compartmentalize and demonize a group. That Booth was an animal lover who could nonetheless single out and torture cats tells you everything you need to know about him and reminds you of Hitler, who loved dogs but could shove six million Jews into gas chambers.

Given his Southern sympathies and resentment of blacks, is it any wonder that Booth sought first to kidnap and then assassinate Lincoln?

Alford keeps Edwin Booth mostly offstage – perhaps with good reason. Edwin managed to triumph over the Boothian demons through his talent, discipline and sheer ability to endure. He was the anti-Wilkes, a Unionist and Lincoln supporter who nonetheless never lost his brotherly affection for the assassin.

There’s a great story about the time Edwin was traveling with John Ford of Ford’s Theatre to Washington D.C. by train and saw a young man fall between the train and the platform as they changed trains in Jersey City. Edwin reached down and pulled the youth up by the scruff of his jacket. It was Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of the president, on his way home from Harvard. In my unpublished play “After Hamlet,” about the parallels between Edwin Booth and his most famous role, I imagine the two meeting years later, a meeting that never actually took place.

One Booth saved a Lincoln; the other took a Lincoln’s life. What was the margin of difference? As I’ve written before I think it’s this:

That Edwin Booth understood that playing Hamlet wasn’t the same as being him.