Monday, November 22, 2010

The Sandburg Lincoln!

Our book today is the much-storied oft-maligned enormous biography of Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg, who wrote it in multiple volumes (two of "The Prairie Years" and four of "The War Years") over the course of some 30 years of ongoing research and constant revision and who agreed to its publication in a gorgeously-made Reader's Digest one-volume edition in 1970. That edition is deliberately monumental - oversized, profusely illustrated, and of course sad, as all things connected with Lincoln must be.

He's an odd case, historically, and I've never quite known what to make of him. He acted less intelligent than he was, and he had an abiding personal belief not just in the utility of humor but in its power - a rare thing in anybody, much less a public official. And he was president of the country as it tore itself apart, which raises another crop of considerations entirely, especially since I naturally believe the Southern states should have been allowed to secede from the Union if they so chose. The Union was supposed to be voluntary - that was its whole point. Doesn't matter that the South wanted to secede for the ugliest of all possible reasons, and it doesn't matter that the resulting Union would have been much smaller and weaker. In the memory of some people still alive in 1861, America had started a rebellion and fought a war for freedom from a coercive union - the Civil War should never have happened, for that reason alone.

But it was fought, and it gave the young country a martial mythology it somehow failed to acquire in the War of 1812, and in Lincoln it got its first mythical leader since Washington, the nexus of nearly as many lies as Washington. Lincoln has lodged in the national psyche as a champion of the common man - yet he lived his whole life yearning to be wealthy, yet he suspended habeas corpus and imposed martial law and authorized military action against civilians. He's seen as a beacon light for freedom, yet he he dashed the independence of an entire fledgling nation and said repeatedly that if he could have 'saved' the Union without freeing one black slave, he would do it.

The key to both men - Lincoln and Washington - isn't in what they did but in what they didn't do. Washington didn't assume dictatorial powers - and Lincoln didn't live.

Hence the sadness whenever he comes up (I myself consider the Lincoln Memorial the saddest piece of scuplture in the world, even beating out a certain momument in Rock Creek Cemetery), and Sandburg was a poet - he couldn't fail to feel it, and it infuses his book.

His book has been much maligned in the half-century since its appearance, and I can only chalk that up to the knee-jerk contempt some academics have for any researched writing that gains a popular readership. Certainly the individual volumes Sandburg wrote did that: each one was an enormous best-seller, and we'll never be able to guess how many copies of the one-volume abridgment have sold in the last 50 years.

It's comforting to re-read it and realize that whatever role mythology might have played in inspiring this book or moving copies, the main reason it sold is because it's so damn good. I'm no great fan of Sandburg's poetry, but he's one hell of a historian. I have no patience for the argument that he lacked formal training - or even that he favors certain kinds of facts over others. For me these things are overridden and rendered moot (and they aren't at all true - books can provide an excellent formal training, and Sandburg's book is more thoroughly researched than its critics have ever given it credit). The point is, this is powerful, deep-rooted, utterly absorbing reading.

My favorite part this time around was the endless gallery of mini-portraits Sandburg provides of virtually every character who walks across his stage ... including two great abolitionists, Charles Sumner:
"I am in morals, not politics," said Sumner. He took it as his mission and role to tell the Senate and thereby the country North and South a series of tragic and horrible facts about slavery. He knew he was telling the truth. But he believed also that any such truth as he might omit was of no importance ... He mentioned the unmentionable, with a cold wrath and an evenly measured scorn, and at last there were Southern Senators and Representatives who wanted to see him suffer and die.

And Massachusetts governor John Andrew:
Andrew sat on Beacon Hill now, a square-built, deep-chested man, curly hair topping his round head, a face smooth with kindliness, almost boyishly cherubic, his eyes peering from behind spectacles, wanting results out of his loyal toiling, decisions quicker than Lincoln could give.

And of course the tireless photo-editors of the old Reader's Digest bullpen have made this particular volume the one to own. Virtually every person mentioned has a portrait, caricature, or photo included here, from the most aesthetically pleasing (that would be a young Joseph Fremont, the most handsome young man of his day, including Hawthorne and Lord Byron) to the least, which was certainly Lincoln himself, here seen in every photograph we have of him.

Sandburg's marvelous prose does the president more justice than those photos ever could. It's unexpected to be reminded how panoramic this book is, but in the end it concentrates amazingly on Lincoln and his many sides. Our author was born in 1878 in beautiful Galesburg, Illinois where the flat-bottomed clouds come freighting from the vast west and cast their tale-telling shadows on the fields and houses, and he grew up in an age that could remember Lincoln as a living man. That living man makes more appearances in this book than in any later biography, and quite a few of those appearances help to alleviate the gloom, as when Lincoln heard the grievance of an officer in the 69th New York regiment:
An officer stepped forward who that morning had tried to quite the service and leave camp, saying, "Mr. President, this morning I went to speak to Colonel Sherman, and he threatened to shoot me." Lincoln: "Threatened to shoot you?" "Yes, sir, he threatened to shoot me." Lincoln looked at the officer, looked at Sherman, and then, stooping toward the officer as if to give a confidential message, and speaking in a stage whisper that could be heard for yards around, "Well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it." The officer turned and vanished. The men whooped.

But that gloom is ultimately all-encompassing, and it does occasionally tempt Sandburg to mysticism:
Had the people and events of those tornado years shaped Lincoln more and more into a man paradoxically harder than ever, yet also more delicate and tenuous in human judgments and affairs? Was there more often a phantom touch in what he did? Did certain men and women who studied him either close up or from far away feel that a strange shade and a ghost, having often a healing power, moving toward a wider and surer human solidarity, lived and spoke in the White House?

Such things are never written about presidents who retire to Crawford and live to a ripe old age innocent of books, disagreements, and introspection. They're reserved for martyrs, whether they're true or not. And Lincoln's own martyrdom propels the most powerful writing in Sandburg's Lincoln, the tense, mournful account of the President's last day leading up to that moment at Ford's Theatre, then that moment (brought about by "The Outsider" - he's not given a name during the re-enactment), then the horrible aftermath all night long. An immensely strong body fought all through the night against its own certain doom, but it's the moment itself that fascinates Sandburg:
For Abraham Lincoln it's light's out, good night, farewell - and a long farewell to the good earth and its trees, its enjoyable companions, and the Union of States and the world Family of Man he has loved. He is not dead yet. He is to linger in dying. But the living man can never again speak, see, hear, or awaken into conscious being.

The Lincoln scholars among you might scoff at the melodramatics of something like that, but you shouldn't deny its effectiveness. This is from first to last a wrenchingly heartfelt book, filled not only with the author's vast research but with his visceral reactions to everything he's learned. That's a combination not lightly to be discarded and not likely to be superseded, yet both those fates have been foisted on Sandburg, and I often wonder why. Is it because he was a poet, and so all other literary efforts can be branded dilettantism? That seems to me to over-inflate dilettantism and underestimate what a serious mind can do in its after hours. Fortunately, while doctrinal wars play out, we still have this book. A nice plump Penguin Classic of it would be no less than it deserves, even though we'd lose all the wonderful photos.


Sam said...

My main concern about this book was always its historical accuracy (somehow the idea got in my mind that it mythologized in very egregious ways)--but if you give Sandburg's research the stamp of approval, my doubts are resolved, and I will read it!

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