With that caveat, I thought KC Confidential’s readership might be interested in the last work of an established writer before his death in February, even though I must confess that I met him once 10 years ago. The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth by Barnaby Conrad
The reaction to literary “relics,” newly discovered works by long departed authors, has been a mixed one.
Ernest Hemingway‘s “A Moveable Feast” was justifiably hailed as a masterpiece when it came out in 1964. The same author’s “Islands In The Stream” was considered, by contrast, a disappointment when it appeared in 1970 after considerable build-up in the press.
However, there is nothing ambivalent in the kind of reaction the most recently unearthed relic should be greeted with.
Barnaby Conrad, Jr.’s “The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth” is based on a story idea first conceived in 1947 by American literary icon Sinclair Lewis, best known as the author of “Main Street” and “Babbit.”
It is the long-deferred fruition of an idea, finally brought to life by 89 year-old author Conrad, Lewis’s one-time personal assistant.
Early one morning almost 65 years ago, Lewis and the then 25 year-old Conrad were discussing possible book plots over coffee at Lewis’s estate near Williamstown, Massachusetts. The older novelist floated the question of what could have happened if Abraham Lincoln‘s assassin had not died in a burning tobacco barn in 1865, shot by a Union soldier with the improbable name of Boston Corbett.
After all, Lewis reasoned, wouldn’t a lot of people have wanted Booth – or someone thought to be Booth – dead for reasons of their own? (Some think there were other plotters, perhaps even within Lincoln’s own cabinet, who were never discovered. Others would, of course, have wanted to collect the $50,000 reward for the killer, dead or alive.)
In an era when methods of personal identification like fingerprints and DNA testing were decades into the future, it would have been very easy to substitute some other person’s body for that of Booth’s and then insist on a hurried burial at an “undisclosed location”. (Enough doubt remains that Booth’s descendants have recently petitioned the federal government to have his corpse exhumed to make sure the actual John Wilkes Booth was buried in what was supposed to be his grave.)
Lewis was excited enough about this idea that he made the aspiring young author promise to write this story before he wrote anything else, even typing up a written agreement on how royalties were to be shared between them. (This agreement is reproduced in the appendix to this book.)
It turns out no one was better equipped to take this spark and fan it into a blazing tale of suspense than Lewis’s assistant, now an accomplished writer himself, with 35 books to his credit since that pre-dawn conversation 60-plus years ago.
What if the “real” John Wilkes Booth had escaped his pursuers in Virginia and instead fled to the American frontier? What was to prevent him from assuming a new identity, and with it a new life, especially in a part of the world where people were reluctant to ask awkward questions about a stranger’s past, lest the same kind of questions be asked of them?
Suffice it to say that the resulting story is not only believable but compelling. One of the most intriguing characters is “Langford Upham”, a young journalist who senses a cover up in the immediate aftermath of the supposed Booth’s death. Upham starts out with the reader’s full sympathy as he relentlessly pursues the man he suspects is the real Booth, but in a clever twist by author Conrad, it is Booth himself that we’re pulling for to get away in the end.
In the final analysis the book is quite simply an exciting read, but with the added bonus of illuminating an era of our history that continues to fascinate each new generation of Americans, just as it has three generations of writers whose efforts produced this engrossing tale.