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.”
Above all, though, what emerges from this great din of voices is the argument over Lincoln’s foot-dragging support of emancipation. “We complain that you, Mr. President, elected as a Republican, knowing well what an abomination Slavery is, and how emphatically it is the core and essence of this atrocious Rebellion, seem never to interfere with those atrocities,” wrote Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune in 1862. Answering Greeley point by point, Lincoln reminded the editor, and hence the nation, that “I have here stated my purpose according to my views of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere be free.” His official duty, however, had nothing to do with slavery. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”
As Mark Twain would say of Huck Finn, Lincoln was a man of sound heart and deformed conscience, if, that is, we take “conscience” to mean the political will of the nation, which Lincoln defined as “a universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, [that] can not be safely disregarded.” Universal sentiment in antebellum America did not list toward abolition, as even the Emancipation Proclamation makes clear, and Lincoln’s conscience, as Frederick Douglass declared, was, from that standpoint, lily-livered: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.”
Still, it seems his heart was right. Even Douglass conceded that: “Measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” Several of the anthology’s authors also quote Lincoln’s letter to his friend Joshua Speed in which he declares, with some heat, that “as a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty–to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” Yet Lincoln had also told Speed, regarding the Fugitive Slave Law, that though “I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down…I bite my lip and keep quiet.”
What we learn, then, is that Lincoln was and remains many things to many people. With his emphasis on competitive individualism, hard work and the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, he incarnates the spirit of American meritocracy: an unwashed, ambitious boy from Kentucky rises from log cabin to the presidency without the aid of family name, connections or even knockdown good looks and commits himself to saving a nation that affords opportunity to others. In 1907 Twain wisely called him a “man of the border”–a house divided, in other words. “He exhibited not his own moral ambiguity but the moral ambiguity of the political order itself,” Reinhold Niebuhr later concluded.
Less circumspect, Lerone Bennett Jr. cogently argued in 1968 that Lincoln was a “white supremacist with good intentions” who, apart from the issue of slavery, ignored blacks. Yet in 2007 Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign by referring to the Lincoln who moved a nation and helped free the enslaved. To that nation he belongs “because men and women of every race, from every walk of life, continued to march for freedom long after Lincoln was laid to rest,” said Obama, “today we have the chance to face the challenges of this millennium together, as one people.”
The tall, brooding and mythic image of Lincoln sells American presidents to the public and to themselves. When under pressure (when not?), Richard Nixon said he sat at the table where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and prayed for guidance; Dwight D. Eisenhower, after his election, handed out snapshots of Lincoln’s portrait as Christmas gifts. The Lincoln molded by and for the ages, and in particular by and for modern times, is the subject of Barry Schwartz’s Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America, a sociological study of Lincoln’s perennial presence but diminishing prestige in the second half of the twentieth century.
Professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Georgia, Schwartz explains that as the beneficiary of the Progressive Era, Lincoln had symbolized reconciliation between North and South–not racial equality–during the early part of the century. Harold Holzer also demonstrates as much, noting that when Robert Russa Moton of the Tuskegee Institute was asked to speak at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, chair of the Memorial Commission, advised Moton to tamp down his criticism of race relations. (The Lincoln Anthology includes Moton’s previously unpublished address, excised portions added.) But according to Schwartz, the Great Depression refitted Lincoln the Reconciler as a Rooseveltian Common Man battling for the social good, and on behalf of (white) wage slaves. In fact, Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt’s speechwriter, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois (also excerpted in The Lincoln Anthology), in which Lincoln appears as a Midwesterner of egalitarian spirit, opposed to slavery, committed to “our democratic system” and a citizen of the world, not an isolationist, ready to resist all forms of despotism.
Unsurprisingly, Lincoln’s image helped sell war bonds, his words were quoted to comfort the bereft and, depicted as the Man of Sorrows, he wept for soldiers and civilians alike. Schwartz notes that Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, an orchestral piece accompanied by readings from Lincoln’s speeches, was one of the most popular wartime productions. But nothing reveals the plastic nature of the Lincoln legacy more than the civil rights movement. Embraced by liberals, the Great Emancipator was also hailed as a gradualist by Republicans who believed that Brown v. Board of Education had gone too far and as a segregationist by Southern Democrats who liked to quote Lincoln’s response to Stephen Douglas “that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
Schwartz also argues that with the advent of radio and movies, Lincoln became more of a national than a regional figure. A hybrid of Southern, Northern, white, black, conservative and liberal views, he now pleased most of the people most of the time. As W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out as early as 1922, Lincoln was “cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.”
Yet despite the nation’s perennial fascination with Lincoln, Schwartz also contends that Lincoln’s prestige has diminished partly because the very idea of greatness itself, particularly national greatness, has petered out. Celebrities, especially entertainers and actors, have replaced “great men,” he contends. “The postmodern era” is “a post-heroic era.” But by documenting this proposition with a series of tables showing respondents (differentiated, say, by race and region) who did and did not designate Lincoln as one of America’s three greatest presidents; with charts and graphs that enumerate the entries per year for Lincoln in the New York Times or the Reader’s Guide and the Congressional Record; and with an impressive set of amusing illustrations of Lincoln (paired with Marilyn Monroe, for example, or naked, or hard-drinking, or in drag), Schwartz inadvertently recalls a golden age of sociology, long since passed. For instead of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Robert Jay Lifton or Erving Goffman (all cited), we are left with a cardboard prose replete with terms (explicated by Schwartz) such as “keying” or “framing”: “‘Keying’…shapes the meaning of current events by matching them with events of the past.” The lecture, along with the bevy of surveys and statistical appendices, buries the argument.
Yet there’s plenty to ponder. When Schwartz defines the post-heroic era as “a stable, post-industrial democracy [that] no longer requires great men and women to revere, no longer inspires their appreciation, no longer can find a place for them,” he does not suggest it’s a bad thing. The postmodern or post-heroic era is also an age of diversity (positive) but without political consensus (somewhat negative); an era of particularisms (not so hot), but of dignity (good) and “critical thinking” (very good). Moreover, Schwartz contends that the so-called appreciation of great men also thrives in a system of social and political inequity; when great men serve the status quo, their putative eminence diminishes everyone else’s. Egalitarianism, Schwartz concludes, has eroded Lincoln’s prestige but not our admiration for him, because we no longer believe in history’s grand narratives and now assume our great women and men have feet of clay. Lincoln may now be admired, lampooned, investigated, criticized and commemorated but not revered in this, the era of fallen heroes. Oddly, though, these heroes are confined to American presidents. Perhaps, then, the era is not post-heroic; it’s the presidents who have grown small.
Schwartz makes scant reference to President Obama, likely because his book was finished before Obama was elected, but one cannot help but wonder what Obama’s almost compulsive reinvigoration of Lincoln bodes for post-heroic politics. The presidential inauguration drew more than a million people to Washington. The heroic seems to have made a comeback, if only for a little while and in a different guise. “As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery,” Obama declared in Springfield, “he was heard to say: ‘Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through.’ That is our purpose here today.” As Obama spoke, the post-post-heroic crowd cheered, wanting very much to believe in greatness–Lincoln’s, Obama’s, its own–once more. That too shall prove, as Gertrude Stein would say, interesting.