Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

A Notable Addition to Lincoln Lore

  For a couple of years in the ‘90s I worked for a theatre at Lincoln State Park (www.indianasabelincoln.org)  in southwestern Indiana that presented an annual summer musical, Young Abe Lincoln. Lincoln’s boyhood years in Indiana from ages 7 to 21 were full of sorrow – he lost his mother and his sister there; much of his lifelong melancholy has its roots there – but crowds could flock to the park on a summer night to watch that story being told in song and dance.

The show was performed in a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre. On the drive to the theatre, one passed the churchyard where Lincoln’s sister, Sarah, is buried. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, is buried across from the state park in what is now the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (nps.gov/libo). Young Abe Lincoln was sweet and charming and it played fast and loose with the history.

One rejected marketing pitch for Young Abe Lincoln was “Walk in Lincoln’s Shoes by Day, Dance in Them at Night!” It wasn’t used but it made me smile.


The mythology and biography of Abraham Lincoln is in constant revision. In a timely discussion of unpopular U.S. Presidents not long ago, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was so disliked in many quarters that there were those who did not think he would live through his first inauguration.

Somebody said, “But everybody loved Lincoln.”

Such is the filter of time on history. Even though Lincoln is almost universally revered and practically deified today, he was widely reviled by many Southerners and Northerners alike when he assumed the presidency in 1861. Of course some were so fearful of his presidency that there was mass secession and civil war.

Even so, as an elementary school student in a still all-white public school in Birmingham during the height of the civil rights movement and the centennial of the American Civil War, my history lessons presented Lincoln as the epitome of goodness – loved and revered by all, the Great Emancipator, the man who brought unity from division. He was the leader of the northern troops during a bloody civil war but my southern teachers, in teaching that war, always painted Lincoln in a beatific light.

My parents were taught that same reverence for Lincoln in southern classrooms two decades before me.

The dichotomy is not lost on me.


Lincoln has been a popular persona of American culture since his death, celebrated by artists from Walt Whitman’s sublime “O Captain! My Captain” to the ridiculous Seth Grahame-Smith novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and its subsequent film adaptation.

Since the advent of film, it seems every generation produces a definitive biographical film about Lincoln. New Lincoln titles are added to book lists annually.

Like most Americans, at least from Baby Boomers back, Lincoln’s life and legacy have been a constant. On my one and only trip to Springfield, Illinois, in the ‘90s, my only objective was to visit Lincoln’s tomb.

On a recent visit to Lexington, Kentucky, I found myself stumbling across places that had relevance to Mary Todd Lincoln’s early life even though I wasn’t necessarily looking for them.

Several birthdays ago, I received Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) as a gift to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the exact same day – February 12, 1809. Gopnik explores the profound impact those two distinct 19th century lives had on society and culture in the two centuries since their births.


Now comes an extraordinary novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The title character of Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by George Saunders (who is already wildly acclaimed as a short story writer), is Willie Lincoln, not Abraham. Willie, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s third son, died at age 11 in 1862, barely a year into the War. It is known that, after Willie’s funeral, Lincoln travelled alone to the cemetery at night to be with his son’s body, to mourn and weep over him.

That element of fact provides the impetus for Saunders’s highly entertaining choral meditation on death and grief. He uses the night of Willie’s burial as the material for a brilliantly compelling work of robust, complex, and unique fiction.

Lincoln in the Bardo is hypnotic and hallucinogenic. The virtuosic structure combines real historical accounts with fictional historical accounts and, most intriguingly, a chorus of the voices of spirits whose bodies are laid to rest in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Willie has just been interred in a borrowed crypt.

The “bardo” of the title is a liminal state – a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that refers to the transition from one life to the next. The spirits of Lincoln in the Bardo have, for a variety of reasons, not moved on and are in denial about their own deaths. They refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and, despite their supernatural abilities and extreme permutations, await the time when they might return to their normal earthly lives.

I hesitate to divulge too much about Lincoln in the Bardo since it is best to encounter the book with a fresh eye. Suffice it to say that the novel begins with a poignant narrative about an unconsummated marriage and ends with a moment that is thrilling in its abrupt and surprising impact. In between are dozens of distinct voices that narrate the struggle for young Willie Lincoln’s soul, framed by historical documents providing further context for the political and emotional struggles of his father.

Abraham Lincoln’s appearances in the book provide a hush and urgency to the turmoil of the night of Willie’s burial. Saunders captures Lincoln’s insurmountable grief through many eyes and illuminates the undependable nature of personal perception.

In the course of the book, observers call Lincoln “The ugliest man I have ever put my eyes on” and “The homeliest man I ever saw.” A page later someone comments that “He never appeared ugly to me, for his face … had the stamp of intellectual beauty” and another adds that “neighbors told me that I would find Mr. Lincoln was an ugly man, when he is really the handsomest man I ever saw in my life.” Such contradictions abound in the historical testimony of the novel.

Such moments of human and otherworldly cacophony make Lincoln in the Bardo a triumphant read despite its grim and often disturbing subject matter.

I am not an aficionado of audiobooks but I am curious about this one. Each character is voiced by a different performer – 166 in all, including Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, and George Saunders. I may have to listen to it. In fact, while reading the book, I kept envisioning it as a play or a staged reading event. Its theatricality is undeniable.

Lincoln in the Bardo is certainly not typical summer reading fare and it’s definitely not going to be to everybody’s taste, but for an adventurous reader willing to tackle it, it’s easy to be quickly drawn into this original, magnificent, and challenging book.

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Thanksgiving 2015: “Simple Gifts”

IMG_2063    Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863 amidst some of the darkest days of the Civil War. Lincoln hoped the gesture might be a unifying measure. That didn’t really happen back then but Thanksgiving has since become a time of celebration and unity that transcends the crass commercialism that accompanies it. We take a day – or maybe only a moment – to pause and give thanks for whatever blessings we may have. Lincoln’s gesture reminds us that at the worst and most hopeless of times, we should remember what we have to be grateful for.

2015 has been a tough year for my family. As I write this, my father is in his fifth week in an intensive care unit. It has been very touch and go but after some pretty radical procedures Dad will soon be moved to a specialty care facility at another hospital where the goal is for him to progress to the point that he can come back home.

This would be good news for everybody, but especially for my mother who has been by Dad’s side every single day, holding his hand for hours on end and diligently making tough decisions about his care. My parents have been married almost 63 years and the bond between them is unusually strong, especially in the tough times. Mother is a cancer survivor; when malignant melanoma was found in one of her eyes thirty years ago Dad was beside her, fighting tirelessly with her the whole way. They have been a formidable and indominatable team throughout their decades together. Now it’s Mother’s turn to speak for Dad and she is showing how tough, resolute, and resilient she can be.

In the six months since my Dad’s health issues began a noticeable decline, some of my friends and acquaintances have faced their own challenges, serious illness, and a few deaths. Back in the summer I remarked to a friend that “I’m not ready for this part of my life.”

Who is?

So we take it day by day and try to be as positive as possible, even on the bad days and through the dreaded phone calls in the middle of the night. Dad still can’t speak but this weekend he wrote a few sketchy notes. He asked for his glasses and then wrote “How do I get out of here?” When Mother arrived at the hospital he wrote “I love love you.”

Mother said last week that there would be no Thanksgiving celebration this year. I understand how she feels and know how difficult it will be to work in Thanksgiving among the hospital visits.

Yet, remembering Lincoln’s gesture as well as the gesture of the English immigrants and indigenous people at that proverbial first American thanksgiving, it seems that the hardest of times may call for the most fervent of thanks. These times give us an opportunity to reflect on what we still have and appreciate and hope for.

We may not have a feast with a bird and all the fixings but I am sure my family and I will find time enough and reasons to give thanks on Thursday.

IMG_2067Simple Gifts (Shaker dance tune)
– Joseph Brackett (1848)
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I thank you for reading my journal.

Atticus

IMG_1866  Sargent Shriver is one of my liberal heroes among 20th Century American politicians. A member of the Kennedy clan by marriage (to Eunice Kennedy), Shriver created and was the first director of the Peace Corps, provided the impetus for the War on Poverty, founded Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, and Legal Services for the Poor, and, following Eunice’s lead, co-founded Special Olympics.

Shriver was from Maryland and had deep Maryland roots. When Scott Stossel’s excellent Shriver biography Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver was published in 2004, this passage, early in the book, leapt out and intrigued me:

William Shriver [Shriver’s great-grandfather], although he was opposed to slavery, was a great champion of states’ rights and ardently supported the Southern cause. Six of his nine sons would serve in the Confederate army. Just across the road lived William’s brother Andrew, who, despite being a slave owner, was a staunch Unionist; his son was serving in the Twenty-sixth Emergency Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers.

In our contemporary era, Civil War studies do not seem to acknowledge such complexity. In our time, we tend to find the most simplistic explanations, get them trending on the internet and in the classroom, and let them be until a new trend emerges.

I have not spent a lot of time on my family genealogy but I do know that I, like Shriver, have ancestors who fought on both sides during the Civil War. Shriver’s were from Maryland; mine were from Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. To the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors owned slaves. At that time, and based on the history of the parts of the South where they settled, they may have never even seen a slave.

In Tennessee native Richard Tillinghast’s great poem “Sewanee in Ruins” (1981), he writes:

For the flaw in their neo-classical structure –
the evil of owning human beings –
they paid, all of them and all of us,
punished by a vengeance only New England could devise –
though only three Tennesseans out of a hundred in 1860
had owned a slave.

Today, however, we don’t seem to be able to acknowledge such complexity and contradiction. We lack context. We lack nuance. We want easy answers. And unless we can look back at history with context, nuance, and perspective, we will never be truly educated and will never understand where we come from

Because we lack context, there are those who want to vilify Abraham Lincoln as a racist based on statements he made in his time and in his place that might have been progressive then but would be shocking if uttered today. W.E.B. Du Bois was aware of these contradictions. And because W.E.B. Du Bois was a brilliant and perceptive man he wrote, about Lincoln, “I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

As a university professor I have been astonished that college educators are being mandated to emphasize “critical thinking” in our QEPs (Quality Enhancement Plans) as if “critical thinking” is a new concept. I was taught that higher education and critical thinking are synonymous and as a teacher I have always emphasized critical thinking; it’s my job. The problem is that well-meaning Ph.D. and Ed.D.-types – many of whom haven’t been in front of a classroom in decades, if ever – have created an educational environment that doesn’t encourage students to think at all. It will take us a couple of generations to recover from the damage done by “No Child Left Behind.”

It’s hard to think critically when all of the information you are given is oversimplified and sanitized and you are constantly being told what to think. It’s hard to think critically when you are not allowed to have perspective. “Politically correct” thinking is, I think, anathema to “critical thinking.” “Information” does not equal “Knowledge.”

James Baldwin, who was educated in a more progressive education system than we have now, wrote, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” That is the paradox that we must strive to renew as we re-learn how to convert information into knowledge.

Here’s perspective: Hugo Black of Alabama, one of the great liberal justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose hand is on some of the most sweeping civil rights legislation and social reform in American history, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s as a young Birmingham attorney and politician. His membership is neither justified nor forgivable but it’s complicated. Black, in retrospect, said that back then “I would have joined any group if it helped me get votes.” When FDR’s appointment of Black to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, that body was aware of his past membership in the Klan. The Senate – which was a more rational institution then than it is now – looked past Black’s past to what he had become and confirmed a man who is still considered one of the most liberal and progressive members in U.S. Supreme Court history.

 


 

Michiko Kakutani, literary critic for the New York Times, who has always had a tin ear for nuance (bless her heart), declares Atticus Finch to be a racist in her review of Harper Lee’s newly published Go Set a Watchman. I’m not sure, based on the evidence, that is what this novel is saying. One of the great talents shared by most Southerners in my experience is a talent for nuance. Many non-Southerners find that talent to be dissembling and irritating; I find a talent for nuance to be vanishing but still a great advantage in most human relations.

The copy of Harper Lee’s new/old novel Go Set a Watchman that I pre-ordered in February was at my front door when I arrived home from a friend’s funeral this past Tuesday, the day of its release.

I finished it this weekend.

It’s an interesting read and I was entertained. It is especially intriguing as the draft for what would become To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m not sure if I think it should have been published and I’m pretty convinced that Harper Lee’s sister, Alice – who handled Harper Lee’s legal and professional affairs, would have never allowed its publication if she had lived (she died last year at 103).

Unfortunately, driven by curiosity, I read the advance press and reviews so the book itself didn’t have many surprises. The big headline and web buzz has been that Atticus Finch has now been revealed as a racist by well-meaning reviewers like Kakutani.

I have to disagree. Atticus Finch has now been revealed as a product of his times. The book, even though it has only now been published, was written sixty years ago and in it Atticus expresses views that were not uncommon to thoughtful and concerned persons – Northern and Southern – of the 1950s. They might be repugnant to us now but it is essential to look at them critically and with perspective and context.

Some detractors of To Kill a Mockingbird – Flannery O’Connor famously and Truman Capote allegedly – dismissed it as a “children’s book.” That doesn’t seem to me to be a flaw although it is true that most readers of Mockingbird come to it at a fairly young age. But I think a root of that criticism may be the feeling that Atticus Finch is just too good to be true.

Now we know that Atticus – like Lincoln, like Jefferson, like all of us – is a flesh and blood human being and a product of his times as we all are (“let he who is without sin” etc. …). Real people have real flaws. In the 1950s and 1960s there were well-meaning people who urged caution and restraint in the Civil Rights Movement and who had doubts and fears about the right way to proceed. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was originally addressed to well-meaning but reluctant Birmingham clergymen who were expressing concern that the Movement should be showing more patience and restraint. Go Set a Watchman presents Atticus Finch as another of these people urging caution and restraint and, let’s be honest, harboring a fear of the unknown.

What has been overlooked by reviewers, I think, is that Jean Louise, the grown up Scout from Mockingbird, has more than her share, by contemporary standards, of jarring and politically incorrect statements. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman may be flawed and incomplete but it is unflinchingly honest.

In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus attends a Citizen’s Council meeting and curtly introduces a rabidly racist speaker to spew his venom; “because he wanted to” is Atticus’s explanation to Jean Louise. It is also revealed that Atticus attended one Klan meeting decades earlier but did not join and did not go back. It is suggested by Atticus’s law clerk that Atticus’s attendance at incendiary meetings is a way to find out who stands where on the issues of the day. Based on Atticus’s statements to Scout, however, it is suggested that Atticus might have common ground with some of their more reactionary rhetoric. Troubling statements are made.

There is nuance here.

Harper Lee, even as she was writing in the mid-1950s, was aware of the various nuances involved in what was going on in her hometown and in the country. She explored them as she wrote Go Set a Watchman and she eased them toward perfection as she rewrote the earlier novel and created To Kill a Mockingbird. In Mockingbird Lee found a way to make the issues enduring and universal. If she had stopped with Watchman, she would have had, I think, a minor novel exploiting the headline issues of the day and passing quickly from memory. In Watchman Lee presents an Atticus who is struggling with his beliefs and with his traditions and who, we can only hope, will come out on the right side of history. In To Kill a Mockingbird – even though it is set two decades earlier – she brings Atticus’s promise to fruition.

If I ever have a son (and I can almost guarantee that is never going to happen) I would still be proud to name him “Atticus.”