Monday, February 18, 2008

Ah, imagine having a president who was "a constant and voracious reader"!

For your Presidents' Day enjoyment, where better to turn than to Abraham Lincoln?

In his account of Abraham Lincoln's early manhood, Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998) (which I wrote about briefly in January), Douglas L. Wilson pieces together a narrative from carefully weighed and vetted first- and second-generation accounts of Lincoln's life after he left his family in Indiana and struck out on his own. Wilson's approach is effective, seemingly getting us yet another bit closer to the historical Lincoln, but the primary sources themselves are the real attraction: his well-chosen selections provide a fascinating glimpse of the life and pastimes of the frontier, delivered in the rough-hewn dialect of its inhabitants.

The language of this account of a prank Lincoln pulled in New Salem--featuring ghosts and drinking, two I've Been Reading Lately favorites--is so spare that it could serve as myth, were it not for the goofy way in which the moral lesson is driven home:
Lincoln is reported to have improvised a prank while in New Salem that sounds as though it were inspired by Burns's poems. As Row Herndon told it,
there was a man that use to come to salem and get tight and stay untell dark he was fraid of Gosts and some one had to goe home with him well Lincoln Perswaded a fellow to take a Sheet and goe in the Rod and perform Gost he then Sent an other gost and the man and Lincoln started home the Gost made his appearence and the man Became much fritened But the Second gost made his appear[ance] and frightend the first Gost half to Deth that Broke the fellow from staying untell Dark anymore.
But while young Lincoln's wit and bawdy humor entertained--and, where unearthed, still do--it was his ability to deploy a similar ease and quick-wittedness as a speaker on more serious points that helped convince his fellow Illinoisans of his leadership potential. Many components went into his ascendance as a politician--including, in a reminder that looks, of a sort, have always mattered in politics, his height and strength--but this list from his Springfield acquaintance William Butler is a nice, brief summary:
Asked why Lincoln was regarded as a good candidate for political office at this time (1832), William Butler replied: " . . . the prominence given him by his captaincy in the Black Hawk War--because he was a good fellow--because he told good stories, and remembered good jokes,--because he was genial, kind, sympathetic, open-hearted--because when he was asked a question and gave an answer it was always characteristic, brief, pointed, a propos, out of the common way and manner, and yet exactly suited to the time place and thing."
I really don't mean to continue making this comparison, because I know it's a real stretch, and of limited utility anyway . . . but I will anyway just this one last time: Wisconsinites and Hawaiians heading to the polls tomorrow, I think you know which of your Democratic candidates gives answers that are "pointed" and "a propos, out of the common way and manner, yet exactly suited to the time place and thing."

{Photo and LOL Obama by rocketlass.}

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