In what I take to be an imagined scene in the first chapter of Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Doubleday, 2011), Charles Guiteau, the future assassin of President James Garfield, stands on the deck of the S. S. Stonington, contemplating his future. The Stonington collides with another ship, which quickly sinks, in flames and smoke. Guiteau manages to survive. He takes his survival as a sign that he has a divinely inspired purpose. The facts of this scene are beyond dispute. The ship did sink, Guiteau was aboard and did survive, and his diaries tell us its effect on him. What bothers me is the fictional frame of the scene. How do we know, factually, what Guiteau was thinking at the moment of impact? We know only what Guiteau’s diaries, and other sources, tell us. Everything else is speculation.
Author Candace Millard’s narrative is smoothly written and highly readable. She tends to divide her characters into binary categories: the good and the bad—Guiteau, Senator Roscoe Conkling, Vice President Chester B. Arthur, for instance—are the bad, while Garfield and his secretary Brown are the good. When Arthur, faced with the possibility of becoming President after Garfield is shot, is somehow redeemed, the exact nature of his conversion remains unclear. Millard suggests that the enormity of the challenge before him had something to do with the change, but she never really questions the change itself.
The failure to recognize shades of moral coloration in these figures is a failing in this book, which dwells more on personalities and superficial events than on causes and meanings and implications.