Thursday, January 17, 2008

Edmund Wilson on Abraham Lincoln

Having indirectly slagged Edmund Wilson the other night when writing about Viktor Shklovsky, I think it's only fair to point out how good Wilson is in his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War (1962) when writing about another regular preoccupation of this blog, Abraham Lincoln.

Wilson doesn't really break new ground in his study of Lincoln, and he gets Reconstruction wrong (which I suppose can partially be excused by the fact that Wilson was writing before historians in the 1960s and after began arguing for Reconstruction's value--and its eventual, necessary continuation in the Civil Rights movement). But as usual, when Wilson pays close attention to texts--in this case Lincoln's writings and speeches--his responses are insightful and compelling.

He's also good on Lincoln's dreams and visions, one of my favorite aspects of Lincoln history and folklore, which, he notes,
add an element of imagery and tragic foreshadowing that one finds sometimes in the lives of poets--Dante's visions or Byron's last poem--but that one does not expect to encounter in the career of a political figure.
Later, in tying Lincoln's fatalism with his sense of his public role as the suffering but stalwart face of the nation--and therefore of democracy--Wilson writes,
The night before Lincoln was murdered, he dreamed again of the ship approaching its dark destination. He had foreseen and accepted his doom; he knew it was part of the drama. He had in some sense imagined this drama himself--had even prefigured Booth and the aspect he would wear for Booth when the latter would leap down from the Presidential box crying, "Sic semper tyrannis!" Had he not once told Herndon that Brutus was created to murder Caesar and Caesar to be murdered by Brutus?
So far as I remember, Borges never wrote about Lincoln, but that last line makes me think he would have found a rich subject in Abe's morbid fatalism.

But the most fun in Wilson's essay is found early on, when he's doing the work that all writers on Lincoln seem to have to do before setting sail: clearing the deck of a century of accumulated nonsense.
There has undoubtedly been written about him more romantic and sentimental rubbish than about any other American figure, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe.
Before I let Wilson go any farther: I doubt anyone's surpassed Lincoln since 1962, but surely someone's surpassed Poe? Ernest Hemingway, maybe? Jack Kerouac? Okay, back to it:
[T]here are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg. Yet Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln, insufferable though it sometimes is, is by no means the worst of these tributes. It is useless if one tries to consult it for the source of some reported incident, but it does have its unselective value as an album of Lincoln clippings. It would, however, be more easily acceptable as a repository of Lincoln folk-lore if the compiler had not gone so far in contributing to this folk-lore himself. Here is Sandburg's intimate account of the behavior of Lincoln's mother, about whom almost nothing is known: "She could croon in the moist evening twilight to the shining face in the sweet bundle, 'Hush thee, hush thee, thy father's a gentleman!' She could toss the bundle into the air against a far, hazy line of blue mountains, catch it in her two hands as it came down, let it snuggle close to her breast and feed, while she asked, 'Here we come--where from?' And after they had both sunken in the depths of forgetful sleep, in the early dark and past midnight, the tug of a mouth at her nipples in the grey dawn matched in its freshness the first warblings of birds and the morning stars leaving the earth to the sun and dew."
Lincoln's mother's nipples! Sandburg imagined Lincoln's mother's nipples! And he compared baby Abe's chewing on them to the singing of birds! I can picture a writer--especially one who is a folksy poet at heart--getting caught up in a rush of words and penning that line. But how on earth does he read it over later without deciding to put the whole manuscript to the match?

It's fun to contrast that silly romantic picture with one of the few things we actually do know about the real Mrs. Lincoln: that she may have been the source of her son's youthful prowess as a wrestler. In Honor's Voice, Douglas L. Wilson quotes testimony from Usher Linder, a neighbor of the Lincolns in Indiana:
His mother, whose maiden name was Nancy Hanks, was said to be a very strong-minded woman, and one of the most athletic women in Kentucky. In a fair wrestle, she could throw most of the men who ever put her powers to the test. A reliable gentleman told me he heard the late Jack Thomas, clerk of the Grayson Court, say he had frequently wrestled with her, and she invariably laid him on his back.
Occasionally I enjoy suspending my disbelief in an afterlife long enough that I can picture unlikely meetings between the dead. Tonight, I'm picturing that day in 1967 when Carl Sandburg joined the heavenly host:
Greeted just inside the gates by Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Sandburg was surprised to quickly find himself being seized by the wings and wrestled to the ground. Confused, he accepted the victorious Mrs. Lincoln's offer of a hand getting up, and as she pulled him to his feet, she introduced herself in her Hoosier drawl and said, "You shouldn't ought to have written that about my nipples."

Dusting off the speechless Sandburg's robes, Mrs. Lincoln smiled and continued, "But you did like my boy, and I have to admit I did enjoy that whole 'hog butcher of the world' bit, so maybe we can be friends after all."

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