Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln, Lincoln, I've Been Thinkin' . . .

What’s that thing that you’ve been drinking?
Looks like water, tastes like wine
Oh my gosh it’s turpentine.

This nonsense children’s rhyme is the earliest association I have of the Great Emancipator

For a review of the Steven Spielberg movie, please go here.

When I was 8 years old or so my family visited Ford’s Theater, and we went across the street to Petersen’s Boarding House. I remember seeing the room he died in, and that made an impression on me. It was so very tiny, the bed was so small. For a child it had an eerie feeling of death. My older brother had a book on the Civil War, and the front spread was a photo of the hanging of the assassin conspirators—seeing those suspended bodies with bags over their heads was very disturbing, and it was the beginning of the story of Lincoln for me.

While he was on the planet, Lincoln’s life was filled with extraordinary accomplishments and moments in history. It’s not surprising then that in death he would again be associated with Big Ideas, the Big Picture of History. The Universe timed the bicentennial of his birth with the election of the first black president. As a plotline in a movie you’d say it’s contrived, but it’s giving a welcomed relevance to the celebration of his birthday.

Where is Lincoln today? In the 1990s he was in Homicide: Life on the Street in Crosetti’s obsession with the assassination. In Almost Famous Billy Crudup sees a photo of him in a coffeehouse, after he’s lied about the article in Rolling Stone. Still the go-to symbol of honesty is our Abe.

The Lincoln of the Library

During my visit to the Lincoln Library in Springfield at Christmas I was struck by several things: how much Lincoln was despised by all sorts of constituencies, as well as the South; how complex his political maneuverings were; and the unrelenting sadness of his life, from the death of mother, to the death of three of his sons, to the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans during the war.

The Lincoln Library is an engrossing, special place. One particularly moving exhibit is called The Civil War in 4 Minutes. It’s a video of a map of the U.S. that shows the major battles of the war through the various states, as a counter registers the deaths of the Union and Confederate armies. It’s a chilling four minutes, and everyone in the room is captivated, deadly silent. I never felt more of a Northerner than in that short time, where I had heard mostly soft Southern voices around me before the film began. Were it not for Lincoln, we Northerners and Southerners might not have ever been delivered as Americans. You can't stand in front of that map of death without getting chocked up for the Nation, and for the man who bore so much of the burden.

The Better Angels of Our Writing

He is murdered on Good Friday. Just how mystical is this man? Seeing that famous last photo taken on him on Feb. 5, 1865, he looks like a man who had already given his life for the Nation, so gaunt and tired and ravaged is his face.

As a writer, it is Lincoln the writer whom I can best understand, best appreciate, best embrace. The clarity of his thought, of his profound intellect, translated into text that has distinctive, engaging cadence, part Shakespeare, part Petrarch.

If he had only written the Gettysburg Address, Dayenu.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

If he had only written the First Inaugural, Dayenu

"That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union at all events and are glad of any pretext to do it I will neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no word to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I not speak?"

Happy Birthday, Abe.


Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Had to look up Dayenu, I'm afraid, but now it all slots into place.

An American friend lent me a book a year or two ago about the Gettysburg Address. It explored this extraordinary speech in the minutest detail, from its origins in Pericles (as reported by Thucydides)down to the fact that the speaker who preceded Lincoln at the Gettysburg memorial ceremony droned on for nearly two and a half hours (I think).

M.A.Peel said...

The Gettysburg Address clocks in at just under 2:00 minutes. Surely Lincoln is the first Modern Man--2 minutes is the optimum time to watch a video online. I just love the guy.

dorki said...

Your mention of Gettysburg brought to mind the horror that I felt as I looked down from Little Round Top at the battlefield. My thoughts were "if I had been born 100 years earlier, I probably would have been down there fighting on the losing side". That the nation was able to pull itself back together (using many of the things that Lincoln championed) is no small miracle.

I may jest sometimes that I only learned in college that the phrase "damnyankee" was actually two words. But I know very well most people in this land are willing to stand united for the common good.