The Knowable Lincoln
In the 1995 Hollywood movie Copycat, the killer tells Sigourney Weaver’s character, “Did you know, Helen, that there are more books written about Jack the Ripper than Abraham Lincoln?” Hardly believable at the time, it is even less true today, as the pace of books published about our sixteenth president approaches one every half second. Whatever else is said of how we observe the bicentennial, no one is likely to complain about the dearth of Lincoln books.
And yet, why not have a whole mess of tomes on this occasion? In 1909, the celebrations of Lincoln’s centenary spread far enough to solicit comment from Leo Tolstoy, who called Lincoln “a saint of humanity.” The life of Lincoln has indeed been portrayed with a reverence usually reserved for saints, with the fervor rebounding in the opposite direction sometime during the sixties and seventies, as Land of Lincoln author Andrew Ferguson explained recently to NEH Chairman Bruce Cole in these pages. Now the counter-counter-reaction is upon us, and the return of pride in Lincoln’s achievement seems even more well-founded for all the doubts we had entertained. And the number of books reflects it.
In this issue of Humanities, Wilfred McClay asks us to recall the grandeur of Lincoln, his presidency, his war making, his preservation of the Union, and his emancipation of the slaves—but also the contingency of it all. In early 1864, Lincoln did not seem to be a giant of American statesmanship. But a year later, upon his assassination, vendors were selling scraps of the bloody bed sheet on which he had drawn his last breath.
To celebrate the bicentenary, I have been reading Lord Charnwood’s seminal biography. If this sounds ever so high-minded, let me add I’m only a quarter of the way through. And yet, already I find much to admire, not just in Lincoln (not surprisingly), but in Charnwood’s manner of describing, evaluating, and appreciating our great Civil War president.
Charnwood’s prose is stately and brimming with confidence about the general direction of history and the knowability of other people’s feelings and motivations. It is also manly and urbane: He makes no apologies for being widely read and well-informed on important matters of history and politics. Nor does he try to absent himself from the telling of the story as many authors do, in the interest of pacing or to make readers feel as if nothing separates them from the action of the narrative.
There is an intimacy with the subject of Lincoln in Charnwood’s book, if not the much-less-attainable intimacy with Lincoln the “shut-mouthed” man. The real Abraham Lincoln thus set aside, the knowable Lincoln takes center stage.
On the interesting question of why Lincoln himself kept quiet about his humble upbringing, Charnwood refreshingly takes Lincoln practically at his word: “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make something out of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy,— ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life, and that’s all you or anybody else can make of it.”
Obviously the hard life of poverty bore little relation to the man he became, Lincoln believed, and Charnwood sees his pre-adult years as a slow divorce of the individual from his circumstance. “Quite early he must have been intensely ambitious, and discovered in himself intellectual power; but from his twelfth year to his twenty-first there was hardly a soul to comprehend that side of him.”
For knowing such a character there is actually nothing like a book, in which a person can come closer than anywhere else to the inner workings of great minds and great lives. So, I say, keep ‘em coming.