Monday, July 02, 2007

A return to Abraham Lincoln, about whom one can never read enough

From "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" (1865), by Walt Whitman:
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my soul for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Sea-winds blown from the east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.

My post last week on dreams featured a pair of dreams attributed to Abraham Lincoln that supposedly foretold his death, which led a friend to admit to having been obsessed with Lincoln as a girl. In particular, she was fascinated with the better-known of the dreams I wrote about, the one known as Lincoln's Dream. She says:
i came to lincoln's dream when i was about six and a half--very shortly after i could read books with chapters--my precocious childhood obsession was politics, elections, and presidents, paired with the moody irish catholic fascination with the supernatural. i used to drape a comforter over my head (and body) to leave my room at night so that lincoln wouldn't recognize me as one of the living. the neighborhood kids and i would stage plays in our garage and yell out, "who is dead in the white house?" this lent itself, of course, to a healthy adult fascination with spiritualism as the product of the hybrid forms of 'experimental' 'feminine' consciousness available in the 19th century & many attempted postmodern sonnet sequences on the life of mary todd lincoln.
Yes, I suppose that is where an obsession with Lincoln's dream is likely to lead a smart and book-loving young woman, isn't it?

Meanwhile, in searching out accounts of Lincoln's Dream, I came across a poem called "Lincoln's Dream" by Dan Chiasson that in the New Yorker this spring, 142 years to the week after Lincoln's assassination. It jumbles Lincoln and Chiasson and all of us up in a vertiginous reminder of mortality--while simultaneously replicating the air of the uncanny that the dreaming Lincoln seemingly felt as he wandered the mourning White House. It's worth a trip to the New Yorker's site.

And then there's Walt Whitman, whose pen was busy in the weeks following Lincoln's death:
This Dust Was Once the Man

This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute--under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of These States.

It's easy (especially living in Illinois) to get overly wrapped up in and impressed by Lincoln, to allow oneself to be gobsmacked by his moral seriousnes, his dedication, his determination, and his preternatural deftness at reading people and situations. As Ulysses Grant, no mean leader of men himself (his presidency aside), said, "I have no doubt that Lincoln will be seen as the conspicuous figure of the war. He was indisputably the greatest man I ever knew."

Yet much as I admire him, I know of course that Lincoln was far from perfect--and I know that remembering that no person or leader can or will be perfect is essential to avoiding the short-circuiting of thought that is a first step on the road to totalitarianism. Analyses of Lincoln's shortcomings--his questionable stances on civil liberties and the prospects of America's freed slaves, for example--are worthy and important.

But for today, as we approach yet another Independence Day with that dishonest, callous, dismal wreck of a man battened down in the White House, I need a reminder that real leaders, truly good men, once walked those same halls. So for today I'll stay with the Lincoln of grade school, the Lincoln who saved the Union, the Lincoln who in his Second Inaugural had the temerity--unthinkable in our current political climate--to suggest that our view of right may be clouded.

We may not know, in his construction, that we understand the will of God, that we do the right thing or are on the right side. But that by no means lessens our responsibility to hew to what we believe to be the correct path, no matter the obstacles, at the same time as it increases our awareness of our responsibility to always recall the humanity that we share with even our fiercest opponents. Bush's blustering attempts to claim the mantle of such stalwart leaders as Lincoln and Churchill are perpetually belied by the complete absence of any of the compassion, humanity, or humility that ring through Lincoln's words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

No comments:

Post a Comment