Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Out of the music and violent dreams of the war, Lincoln stood taller

Amongst the boxes of an inherited library, I uncovered a collection of Lincolnalia - over a dozen biographies and books about Abraham Lincoln - the most recent one published in the 1950s. So I decided to read a handful of them. Perversely, I first went down to the Bellingham Library and checked out what I assumed to the most authoritative and up-to-date biography to start off with, Lincoln by David Donald, published in 1995. Figured that the extra 45 years might offer insightful perspective that I could then carry on into the earlier texts.

From The Library Journal:

Donald's profile of the 16th president focuses entirely on Lincoln, seldom straying from the subject. It looks primarily at what Lincoln "knew, when he knew it, and why he made his decisions." Donald's Lincoln emerges as ambitious, often defeated, tormented by his married life, but with a remarkable capacity for growth into the nation's greatest president. What really stands out in a lively narrative are Lincoln's abilities to hold together a nation of vastly diverse regional interests during the turmoil and tragedy of the Civil War.

At the end of Chapter 9: The Taste Is in My Mouth, just after the moment where Lincoln realizes that he is going to be the next president, I realized there was something, some essential life, poetry, missing from Donald's biography. The research was impeccable, everything presented in fine order, and yet, at this crucial moment in the history of a great man's life, I felt distant and "locked out" - especially in that Donald makes a point in the preface to emphasize that this is "a biography written from Lincoln's point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him."

So I turned to Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, a first edition, no less, published in 1954. I paged around until I found the same place in time at the end of Chapter 14, "Mary, We're Elected." And here, here, was what I was looking for (naturally, coming from a poet). Look at these two examples of the last paragraphs of each book:


In the days before the election, as Republican victory seemed increasingly likely, Lincoln's basic pessimism reemerged as he began fully to realize that a campaign initially undertaken primarily for local political reasons was going to place him in the White House. Just a few days before the election he remarked to a New York caller: "I declare to you this morning, General, that for personal considerations I would rather have a term in the Senate - a place in which I would feel more consciously able to discharge the duties required, and where there is more chance to make a reputation, and less danger of losing it - than four years of presidency."


Events marched and masked their meanings. Facts were gathering motion, whisking into new shapes and disguises every day. Dream shapes of future events danced into sight and out of sight, faded and came again, before a whirlgig of triple mirrors.

I am not sure that I even understand the meaning of Sandburg's language, but I am utterly seduced by it. Whereas, again at this pivotal moment in Lincoln's life, Donald provides us with, what I suspect to be, rather ingenuously humble remark by Lincoln that effectively deflates the moment of all its import.

Amidst the usual masturbatory exaltations of hyperbolic hallmark sentiment that typlifies most of the's customer reviews, I found one from Keith Orth that succinctly concurred:

While I feel that Mr. Donald's sober, respectful portrait of Lincoln reflects serious scholarship, I can't agree that this is the towering literary accomplishment the blurbs suggest. When reading this tome (do you really need such excruciating detail about all those secondary and tertiary 19th century politicians?) one often remembers that the author is an elderly Harvard academic, and not the kind of intuitive storyteller and brilliant writer who is the subject of the book.
To be fair, Lincoln as a man and politician and perhaps our most important president is such a complex proposition that no single volume can do him justice. This is a noble attempt. My only real objection is the author's dryness and lack of narrative propulsion--serious drawbacks at any time but especially taxing in a book this length.

An excellent article in the Journal of Abraham Lincoln Association, Sandburg's Lincoln Within History by James Hurt summarizes the issue beautifully:

A different, though related, charge against The Prairie Years and The War Years is that they contain too much material that is neither biography nor history but merely rather sentimental poeticizing on Sandburg's part. Quaife was as hard on this aspect of The Prairie Years as he was on the careless scholarship. He was especially scornful of what Sandburg called the "moonlight chapters," sections in which he sketched in the historical context of Lincoln's life by imagining what the moon might have seen at the time. "Whatever else it may be," Quaife snorted, it is "not history." Sandburg's "poetical" interpolations were also the butt of Edmund Wilson's famous attack on the book, first in The New Yorker and then in Patriotic Gore. Wilson found Sandburg's treatment of Lincoln's romance with Ann Rutledge particularly hard to stomach. He cited Sandburg's line, "A trembling took his body and dark waves ran through him sometimes when she spoke so simple a thing as, 'The corn is getting high, isn't it?'" Wilson's comment was, "The corn is getting high indeed!"
One critical strategy, faced with the uneasy blend of history and poetry in Sandburg's Lincoln, has been to abandon the claim to biographical accuracy and instead see the book as a large-scale national poem, perhaps an American epic. This is the view taken by, among many others, Penelope Niven, author of the massive and authoritative 1991 Carl Sandburg: A Biography."Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years," she writes, "is a vast, epic prose poem, with Lincoln the central figure in the volatile pageant of nineteenth-century American life. A man and a nation simultaneously came of age, for Lincoln grew into manhood as his country faced its own great crisis of character and destiny." It is also essentially the view that Robert W. Johannsen takes in his wonderfully warm and sympathetic 1978 essay on "Sandburg and Lincoln: The Prairie Years." He frames Sandburg as a romantic historian rather than an epic poet, but the two are very similar in Johannsen's formulation. The Prairie Years, he writes, quoting Sandburg approvingly, "was a 'poem of America, the America of humble folk and rough pioneers, of crude settlements ... of the corn lands and broad prairies ... a poem of the human spirit, not Lincoln's spirit only.'"
Sandburg himself saw his book as an American epic as often as he thought of it as a mere biography. In a preface written for The Prairie Years but dropped before publication, he wrote, "The facts and myths of his life are to be an American possession, shared widely over the world, for thousands of years, as the tradition of Knute or Alfred, Laotse or Diogenes, Pericles or Caesar, are kept." And in his "symphonic finish" to The War Years, Sandburg wrote, "Out of the smoke and stench, out of the music and violent dreams of the war, Lincoln stood perhaps taller than any other of the many great heroes. This was in the minds of many. None threw a longer shadow than he. And to him the great hero was The People. He could not say too often that he was merely their instrument." In this and in many similar passages, the figure of Lincoln becomes merged with that of Sandburg's favorite abstraction, The People, and the book becomes a democratic epic celebrating not an individual but a collective hero.

You know that when the primary text gives birth to such electric secondary comment and critique that you are on the right track. When I read, "Quaife snorted, it is 'not history'" and "Wilson's comment was, 'The corn is getting high indeed!'" I laughed out loud.

I imagine that amongst the Homeric Rhapsodes there were Quaifes and Wilsons, sniffing and snorting and arching the supercilious brow. Thousands of years later, the poet stands and Quaife is down in the dust trying to count Hector's teeth. Give me the epic over the Leibowitzian litanies any day.

The other biographies that I have are the sturdy workmanlike "classic" Abraham Lincoln: A Biography by Benjamin Thomas (1954, first edition). And Emil Ludwig's Lincoln (1930, first edition). I won't spend any more time on Thomas except to say that you could still use his text in any high school class without issue. Ludwig is another story. It is important to bear in mind two things: 1. Ludwig was a German, this text being a translation; and, 2. it was published in 1929, 1930. (Also published around this time: All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque (1929), Heidigger's Being and Time (1927) and Mein Kampf by Hitler (1928). In 1930, the Nazi Party won 107 seats in the Reichstag.)

Ludwig's biography seems, at times, to possess a queer distance from the facts - and not in a poetic Sandburgian manner. He treats Lincoln's life as something divorced from history, counter-real literature, a fine play, with Lincoln as the lead actor. And his writing is soaked in maudlin bathos. A couple of quick quotes:

I see him like one of Shakespeare's characters, absolutely original, comparable to none, immemorable unique.
[...] But then the son fears his father's deathbed just as he had feared his own wedding bed. His loneliness, his great loneliness, makes him dread such encounters and withdraw into himself.

[...] Never again, since Abraham Lincoln lived and died, has an innocent man worn a chain of slavery on his foot on that vast continent.
In the mornings, when my coffee needs a little more saccharine, I tear up pages of the Ludwig biography and stir them into the cup.

So there you have it, over halfway through all four. I was over a Watermark Books in Anacortes the other day and saw the just published Ronald White,  A. Lincoln: A Biography. I figure that I am good for it and, just to make sure the entire cake is covered, Abraham Lincoln by McPherson. I mean, I am already in it, might as well touch bottom.

And yet, over 100 years ago, in 1876,  in his Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas said, "Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln."

The Laughing Bone Store: Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years by Carl Sandburg


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