Sallow, Queer, Sagacious: Lincoln Through the Ages
It was "interesting," said Gertrude Stein of the Civil War, although she was far more intrigued by General Grant than Abraham Lincoln, whom she virtually ignored. She's the only one, so it seems, especially now with the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, duly touted by committees, books and celebration, having arrived just a few weeks after President Barack Obama's historic inauguration, during which he took the oath of office using Lincoln's burgundy velvet Bible. But then Lincoln has been for a very long time enshrined as a legend, albeit a complex one, whose fate was sealed by the martyrdom that gave him to the ages, or angels, depending on how one recalls Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's tender benediction.
By 1865 the outlines of Lincoln's life were already familiar to enthusiasts and detractors alike, for Lincoln's rise to the presidency fleshed out the American dream of equal opportunity, at least for white men: born into hardscrabble poverty, his mother dead of the "milk sickness" when he was 9, and the son of a feckless or restless father (depending on your point of view), young Abe Lincoln, six-foot-four in stocking feet, read at night by the fire, etched out his thoughts on the back of a shovel and in his early years earned his keep as a farmer, rail-splitter, surveyor, ferryman, postmaster and storekeeper. By 28 he was an avid student of Blackstone's Commentaries and Aesop's Fables as well as a crackerjack lawyer and a formidable Whig leader in the Illinois House of Representatives. Galvanized by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, he later worked assiduously in 1856 for the Republican presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, opposing the extension of slavery into the territories although, according to William Dean Howells, Lincoln's presidential campaign biographer, Lincoln was no "ultra" (i.e., abolitionist). He was, however, astute, articulate and persuasive; he launched his seven well-covered debates with Stephen Douglas for the Illinois seat in the United States Senate with the stirring "House Divided" speech: "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall--but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new--North as well as South."
This was a man to be reckoned with. Though provincial, depressive and ugly, he was able to help the Union win the Civil War with words. He could speak; he could write; he was quick on his feet. He could stir multitudes. Yet, as Edmund Wilson once quipped, there is "more romantic and sentimental rubbish [about Lincoln] than about any other American figure, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe."
Wilson's remark can be found in one of the most delightful books commemorating Lincoln this season, the Library of America's Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy From 1860 to Now. Intelligently and enthusiastically edited by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who not coincidentally serves as co-chair of the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the anthology contains a smart historical introduction followed by informed headnotes to the 900 subsequent pages of Lincolniana, all arranged chronologically: reminiscences of and responses to the sixteenth president by novelists, biographers, poets, playwrights and politicians who range from William Cullen Bryant to Langston Hughes, from Henrik Ibsen to W.E.B. Du Bois, from Julia Ward Howe to Gore Vidal, and from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Barack Obama, who ends the volume.
A delicious smorgasbord, The Lincoln Anthology also contains many of Lincoln's own words as well as such exceptional expositors of them as Jacques Barzun, Marianne Moore and Garry Wills, who brilliantly analyzes the Gettysburg Address and memorably calls Lincoln "a Transcendentalist without the fuzziness." Some contributors, alas, fall short of such stylistic panache, particularly when they wrap Lincoln in fictional clothes and set him a'courting the doomed Ann Rutledge, about whom very little is known, and then plunk him down, copiously weeping, at her grave. Stephen Vincent Benét impersonates Lincoln's voice; Rosemary Benét, the voice of his mother; Norman Corwin speaks for Stephen Douglas's wife, Adele; and Irving Stone embarrassingly imagines a sexy Mary Todd after a bath. We have, it seems to me, strayed far afield, and so return with relief to Shelby Foote, whose novelistic flamboyance at least serves history, not the other way around.
But taken together, these marvelous selections show how the idea of Lincoln has changed and yet holds the imagination in thrall: somewhat equivocally, Hawthorne thought Lincoln looked like a country schoolmaster, though he decided that, "on the whole, I liked this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it." Journalist Henry Villard, who also liked him, nonetheless said Lincoln was not firm; "the times demand a Jackson." Well-forgotten hagiographers such as Edmund Clarence Stedman cried out for vengeance after the assassination of the man Melville called The Martyr. Karl Marx said Lincoln was sui generis; Harriet Beecher Stowe, that he was "a man of the working classes." Edwin Markham insisted "the color of the ground was in him," and nothing surpasses the elegiac beauty of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
Dissenters are no less Lincoln-struck. Mencken, who admired him, also regarded the Gettysburg Address as nonsensical, and poet and pacifist Robert Lowell denounced a Lincoln he could not shake: "J'accuse, j'accuse, j'accuse, j'accuse, j'accuse!" Delmore Schwartz found him a "tricky lawyer" made into a "prairie Christ" by the inevitable Carl Sandburg, Lincoln mythologizer par excellence, who, among other exercises, recited the Gettysburg Address on The Ed Sullivan Show. The five Sandburg entries prove Edmund Wilson right again: "there are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruellest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg."