Monday, October 12, 2009


Columbus Day. No school. But all I've done all day is read and write and manipulate words. That must be my hobby, my favorite recreational pursuit. Well. Maybe.

The project I laid out for myself this weekend was to finish the two-volume, 1600-page biography of Abraham Lincoln that I have been reading since early August. It's by Michael Burlingame, a Lincoln scholar who has edited the diaries and papers of John Hay, John Nicolay, William Stoddard, and Noah Brooks. The first three were Lincoln's White House secretaries. Brooks was a journalist who was close to the 16th president. The biography is exhaustive (and exhausting) in its quotations from Lincoln's contemporaries, but it's not particularly readable. For every action or presidential speech, letter or paper, Burlingame writes several paragraphs of who said what in support of Lincoln, followed by who said what in opposition--lots and lots of good old American political and journalistic spin. It begins to feel like flipping back and forth between MSNBC and Fox. The rhetoric isn't all that different.

Burlingame's Lincoln is a remarkably mature, magnanimous, forgiving man, even-tempered, tender-hearted, but rather crude at times. It's hard to imagine the statuesque Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial telling a joke with "he can kiss my ass" as the punch line. But the Memorial was built at a time when the Lincoln myth had grown huge and quasi-religious. Nowadays we want to know about the dirt under the fingernails, the flares of temper, the back-room political deals. Lincoln's greatness survives twenty-first century tell-alls. Lincoln is a man who grew to meet the challenges he faced. Who knew he could do it and who could let go of the pettiness that obscures the right path for most of us, at least part of the time. Great challenges help you focus on what's important.

I finished the book this morning before getting out of bed. Volume two goes back to the library tomorrow. This is probably the end of my bicentennial gorge on Lincoln biography. (Probably. Have to see what's on the shelf at the library.) I have been reading Lincoln books since I discovered the children's biography section at the library when I was six or seven. I'm sure part of the fascination comes from living in Illinois, from multiple trips to Springfield and New Salem, from an interest in American history that was fed by the Bruce Catton books my father bought and read during the Civil War centennial. But I also feel a kinship with Lincoln. Sounds like a high-falutin' claim, or a fatuous one. But I can't be alone in this feeling. Lincoln fascinates lots of people. Only Shakespeare and Jesus have had more books written about them. I guess I want to know what it was like to be him--and how much different is that--apart from the obvious--from being me?