The short and simple annals of the poor.
The bittersweet days of my youth – its trials, its joys, its adventures –, though never forgotten, came to an end one September morning when Grandma Anna Minczer announced: “You are going to school”. Oh as I was young, I pleaded in tears for her mercy, to let me play and be carefree, and happy as the grass was green.
No tears, no pleas swayed my illiterate Grandma. She soaped, she rubbed, and washed and dressed me. Time had held me green, and now Grandma held me. She pulled me uphill to the village school as I did not go gently into that first day of school. Then the dreaded moment: the teacher appeared in the doorway, smiling, and holding a cane.
“This is my firstborn grandson”, Grandma said. “His bones are mine, his brain is yours. Teach him to read and write. Thrash him and make him learn. If he cries, he will learn”. Leaving, Grandma reached into the layers of her skirts, and pulled out a baked quince, spiked with sprig of rosemary. “Here, it gives you courage smelling it while you cry”.
In my free and barefoot boyhood, I loved not to study, and hated to be forced to do so. And forced I was; in school they used the cane, and caned until I learned. But I did learn; for what was forced at first turned into passion.
From those first lessons I obtained, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing what I will. It was Grandma who summoned and set me upon the steep ascent of learning, upon the truth that empowers us all: the power of books, the power of language. It is, then, to my Grandma that I owe my Icarian flights and creation of new worlds. Because of her, I pass through a circle of my studies; I learnt to rise aloft on knowledge and knock upon the gates of Heaven.
It never occurred to me to believe or fancy that the quantum of intellectual power bestowed on me by nature or by education was not connected with the influence of Grandma. My illiterate Grandma never wrote down a word, nor read a book, signed her marriage certificate with a sign – yet I never had a better teacher. Socrates never wrote down a word; Christ wrote only once, with his fingers in the dust – yet the world never had better moral teachers.
Grandma’s last embrace was when she was fading away. But her spirit, though subdued, revived seeing me. On a starlit night she pointed at the stars. “Look! How a bright star twinkles from the sky, so shall I one day watch you from above.” Slowly through the churchyard path we saw her carried away. Years later, I returned to my birthplace Kesztölc, and, visiting the cemetery, approached her graveside where I read – for I can read – engraved on the stone her name, date of birth and death.
Though my Grandpa was affectionate, he was impatient, often angry with my obsession: reading. A boy up in the hayloft reading Mark Twain was a worthless, unproductive being, when measured by the usual standards of Grandpa’s practical values. “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn bread”: the Book of Genesis says it best. It summed up Grandpa’s view of life. He learnt that man is born for work, and that his work is in him, in the satisfaction of the daily needs of existence, and that unhappiness is the fatal result, not of our need, but of our reading too many books.
Hiding in the hayloft and reading, I heard Grandpa in the yard addressing Grandma. “Mark my words, Anna! That grandson of yours will amount to nothing. All he does is read books. Books, damn books – it spoils the boy.”
I was born to a poor family. There were no books other than my mother’s prayer book and the calendar hanging on the wall next to the cracked mirror. Now my study is walled with shelves, shelves of eloquent, mute books that are as personal as the collector, and at the same time bear testimony of knowledge that is impersonal, because it is universal, and so much larger than an individual life.
To paraphrase the words of my favourite author Montaigne: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished personal library”. The thousands of volumes it contains comprise a living world “and every book a man, absolute flesh and blood”, said Coleridge. What pleasure it is to peruse the shelves of books read in your bygone youth and to recognise features of our identities preserved there.
On my bookshelf is the Norton facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare (1623), based on the Folios in the Folger Shakespeare Library Collection (Washington, DC). Here is one of the essential books of English literature and culture; a literature and culture that shaped the life and writing of Abraham Lincoln.
Behind the sorrowful, melancholic, dark, and brooding façade, Lincoln was three things: a brilliant cracker-barrel philosopher, a Machiavellian politician, and a literary genius. Lest we forget, Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration took place within a bloodstained civil war. And yet in the midst of a relentless siege of crises his presidential writings, memorable and inspiring, achieved literary greatness and found a permanent place in the American imagination.
Few would contest that Lincoln is the most American of the great American writers, that after Lincoln comes Mark Twain, and out of Mark Twain come contemporaries of ours as diverse as Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway. Far beyond New England gentility, in the midst of which Emerson and Thoreau rise like rugged and inaccessible islands.
The most important writings of Lincoln – the Gettysburg Address, the First and Second Inaugural Address, and House Divided Speech at Springfield, Illinois – are works of unsurpassed genius. They vibrate with energy, imagination and inspiring passion. His gift for the right word is arguably as great as Shakespeare’s, and his versatility as a prose stylist is dazzling.
Irresistibly the reader is drawn into the voice of Lincoln – exquisitely lyric, yet with a profound melancholy underneath. That Lincoln possessed a melancholy temperament and was given to sad thoughts is well known. But as Aristotle wisely observed, men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry or art “appear to be all of a melancholy temperament”.
In his juvenile poetry there is obsessive gloom about separation, insanity and death. This suggests that he concealed secret wounds – an orphan, raised by a stepmother, and cast adrift at an early age to make his way – which ultimately made out of what apparently was a common man the celebrated, luminous figure of an artist-saint.
But even for those who acknowledge Lincoln as an artistic genius, the question remains: how did this poor boy from Illinois, who went to school, as he put it, “by little”, not even a year, achieve a literary eminence and mastery of the English language that invites comparison with Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Jefferson and Mark Twain?
He is indisputably one of the masters of English style, noted for its beauty and noble simplicity. This then is style. As technically manifested in Lincoln it is the power to touch with ease, grace and precision, any note in the full scale of human thought or emotion. But essentially it is an attempt to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for your own self – of thinking and writing with compassion, with the heart as well as the head.
What enhances Lincoln’s vivid style of writing is his emblematic intellect, his inborn tendency to transform into shape, into life, the feeling that may dwell in him. Everything in Lincoln’s style of writing has form, harmony and rhythm first, and then a lightning-like brevity, reminiscent of Shakespeare, turns into visual excellence. The artist’s imagination bodies forth the forms of things unseen, and his pen turns them into shape.
The graceful eloquence of his style comes from the contrast between the transparency of language and the depth and density of thought. Almost any example will illustrate. This is from Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois (11 February 1861).
Dear friends. No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.
Leaving Illinois for the White House, Lincoln closes the fifteen lines with one of the noblest and most memorable cadences in English language: “To His care [Divine Being] commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell”.1
Lincoln saw his activity as a writer not in the light of literary fame, but as an attempt to change the Republic from within and from where he was. His writings became a means to achieve his presidential ends. His command of English propelled him to the White House and presidential greatness.
As Commander in Chief, Lincoln mobilised the English language and sent it into battle, and, in the word of Pulitzer-prize winner James McPherson, won the war, the Civil War, with metaphors. Winston Churchill summoned the English language and sent it into battle – against Hitler.
Having read Lincoln’s works, I can boldly affirm that it would be scarcely more difficult to push a stone from a pyramid with bare hands, than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Shakespeare or Lincoln – their most important works at least – without making the author say something else, or something worse, than what he does say. At ten, Lincoln could not read orwrite. At twelve, with turkey-buzzard quill he would write his name: Abraham Lincoln. There was no paper, no pencil in the log-cabin where Lincoln grew up. When he came across a passage or image, he would write it down with charcoal on boards inside the cabin. The polished boards were covered with quotes from Shakespeare and the King James Bible. He was a passionate student of the word; a voracious reader all his life.
You might read all the books in the Library of Congress or the National Library of Hungary – if you could live long enough – and remain an utterly illiterate, uneducated person. But if you read twenty pages of a good book, letter by letter – that is to say, with real attention – you are evermore in some measure an educated person. Lincoln read the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and Aesop over and over, memorised passages, and kept notebooks.
It is worth quoting Emerson:
I am sure if this man [Lincoln] had ruled in a period of less facility of printing, hewouldhavebecomemythologicalinafewyears,likeAesopbyhisfables and proverbs. What pregnant definitions; what unerring common sense; what foresight; and, on great occasion, what lofty, and more than national, what human tone.2
Next to Aesop, the “manifold greatness” of the King James Bible also influenced and shaped Lincoln’s poetic prose. Mid-nineteenth century American culture was a biblical culture. American literature was steeped in the Bible. Two of America’s major poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, though different in many ways, both wrote under the influence of KJB.
It is worth noting that Whitman’s vast Leaves of Grass (1855), which he himself described as a “New American Bible”, took its prose-poetic line, as Blake had before him, from the rhythmic prose of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets.3
Equally revealing, during the American Civil War, “both Southern defenders of slavery and Northern abolitionists quoted the Bible in support of their beliefs. Most important, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is biblically allusive in its language and style, as in the antiquated ‘fourscore and seven years’ or the phrase ‘shall not perish’ (taken from Joshua 3:16)”.4
It is said that Lincoln attributed the cause of the Civil War to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a biblically saturated bestseller in America and Europe. When Beecher Stowe visited Lincoln in the White House, the President exclaimed, “So this is the little lady who made this big war!” The “little lady” called Lincoln’s papers “worthy to be inscribed in letters of gold”.
Not surprisingly, at the end of the Civil War, “African Americans in Baltimore presented Lincoln with a pulpit edition of the KJB, bound in purple velvet, gold- detailed, with an embossed cover design representing the Emancipation. The cost was $580.75, equivalent to almost $ 8,000 today.”5
This monumentally significant King James Bible has seeped into the collective consciousness more profoundly than any book written in English. It shaped the inner life and branded the tongue of Lincoln. Its phrases and rhythms did not merely enter the language of Lincoln. They basically defined his language.
If there is one author who sheds light on Lincoln’s success as a communicator, his skill in the use of aphorism, a terse statement of truth, or metaphor, a figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another, it is Aesop. Aesop’s Fables – what a magic they have! What fascinating role Aesop, this humorist, played in the life of Lincoln, the great American humorist! Like Aristophanes, Lincoln clearly thought of Aesop as primarily a humorist. The Aesop fables, with their wry humour, of gnomic utterances, of witty asides, of barbed epigrams, give us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Lincoln.
Lincoln was the story telling president. “He used anecdotes the way Christ is said to have used parables, to make a point, to illustrate a principle. He used humour the way Mark Twain used humour, to break down barriers and throw light on truth.”6
Many of Lincoln’s stories were as sharp, witty and instructive as the best of Aesop’s Fables. Let me cite an example from amid the multitude.
When General George B. McClellan was commander of the Union forces, Lincoln demanded that the general report to him frequently, and McClellan resented it. The general once sent Lincoln the following telegram from the field:
President Abraham Lincoln
Have just captured six cows. What shall we do with them?
George B. McClellan
Lincoln immediately wired back:
General George B. McClellan
Army of the Potomac
The clarity of mind and sheer wit of Lincoln, who loved Aesop, do have a way of transcending time. Aesop’s Fables about animals provided an excellent way to communicate with people who were still close to their rural roots and understood the idioms of nature and barnyard. Lincoln was tuned to the rhythm of nature, of season and crops and of farmers with bent back who earned their meagre living from the land. They knew little of the language which was spoken in Athens by Plato or in Rome by Cicero. But they spoke, they understood the language of Lincoln, and infused his speech and writing with the images of nature.
And when he read, whether it was Shakespeare, or Robert Burns, or Aesop, Lincoln absorbed it; he gave it a new arrangement of his own mind, and wrote it again in the American idiom. The raw life of the American frontier came into Lincoln’s life; it went out of him as truth. It came to Lincoln from the Bible; it went out of him as immortal thought. It came to Lincoln’s politics, it went from him as poetry.
In his youth Lincoln, an aspiring poet, embraced the New Testament idea that “In the beginning was the Word”. Lincoln, the poet, obsessed with Hamlet, wrote:
O Memory! Thou mid-way world
‘Twixt Earth and Paradise,
Where things decayed, and a loved one lost
In dreamy shadows rise.8
The secret of his infallible exposition as a writer is his obsession with words; he is insatiate for expression, and his truth had to be clad in the right verbal garment. Lincoln’s opera omnia can be experienced as an epic of thought, as a mastery of English, marching cadences, cadences homely and sublime, cadences of poetry in prose toward tomorrow, toward the promised shores of justice and human felicity.
He acquired his power of language and clarity of expression by reading and writing. Lincoln’s private presidential secretary John Hay’s diary records an unforgettable scene in the White House.
A little after midnight as I was writing, the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of [Thomas] Hood’s works in his hand to show me the little caricature “An unfortunate Bee-ing”, seemingly utterly unconscious that he with his short shirt hanging about his long legs and setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at.
What a man it is! Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own fame and future hanging in the events of the pressing hour, he yet has such a wealth of bonhomie and good fellowship that he gets up of bed and perambulates the White House in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun of poor Hood’s queer little conceits!9
A bare-legged apparition in white shirt at midnight in the White House – Abraham Lincoln with a book in his hand, laughing. It would take the great Shakespeare, who can say everything, everything, and everything exactly as it is, to give character and form to this extraordinary scene in the White House.
But let me go a bit deeper. No writer of English so constantly chose the right word, in phrase after phrase forcing you to touch and see as Shakespeare and Lincoln. He not only read and memorised Shakespeare but recited speeches and long passages with dramatic emotion. Lincoln had a capacity and talent to be an actor; an expert raconteur with endless repertoire of anecdotes and great mimic. I venture that Lincoln’s homage to Shakespeare is expressed through his plays and characters. Lincoln was Macbeth; he was RichardIII; he was Hamlet.
In a letter to the actor James H. Hackett (August 1864), Lincoln wrote:
I am anxious to see Falstaff again. Some Shakespeare plays I have never read; while others I have gone over frequently as any nonprofessional reader. Among the latter are “Lear”, “RichardIII”, “HenryVIII”, “Hamlet”, and especially “Macbeth”. I think nothing equals “Macbeth”. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the dialogue in “Hamlet” commencing “Oh, my offense is so rank”, surpasses that commencing “To be or not to be”. But pardon this small attempt at criticism. I should like to hear you pronounce the opening of “Richard III”. Will you soon visit Washington again? If you do, please call and let me make your personal acquaintance.
As a lifelong reader of Shakespeare and intimate with his plays, Lincoln can, in a sort, nestle into Shakespeare’s brain and think from there in an imaginative way. Like Shakespeare, Lincoln delights in the world, in man, in woman, for the lovely light that sparkles from them. Art and beauty, the spirit of joy and hilarity, the splendour and agony of human drama, both shed over the universe.
For Lincoln, the name Shakespeare suggests joy and elevation of the mind and heart of man. If Lincoln should appear in any august company of human souls, it would be Shakespeare and his faithful admirers.
Like Shakespeare, Lincoln has rightful claim for the essential unity of great thought and great style. And where, apart from Lincoln, are we closer to Shakespeare’s immediacies, to the naked energies of felt thought or the poetry of thought? In Lincoln as in Shakespeare, no passionate thoughts are too deep for words. In both, thought and poetry, the poetics of thought are the power and control of words, of total intellectual command of language in motion.
As Lincoln put it in his First Inaugural Address, in a passage that would evoke a nod of assent from Shakespeare,
Physically we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.
The creative virtuosities which place the plays of Shakespeare and the major writings of Lincoln among the very summits of all literature need no emphasis. By all account, the gem of Lincoln’s literary genius is the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s most famous poem in prose was crafted in two months. He was a deliberate writer: he revised, polished, read it out loud, and laboured endlessly to find the right word.
The Gettysburg Address is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power in 272 words: a triumph of art as well as thought. Lincoln’s literary artistry takes us into the realm of the sublime. He is a poet, a maker, a shaper of language. With Lincoln, one is under the impression that the universe speaks English. This is at the heart of the Gettysburg Address: to make it seem as if the very universe spoke and revealed itself through the mother tongue.
The magic of Lincoln is that the Gettysburg Address is a single extended metaphor about how individuals and nations are conceived: they are born, they fight, and they die. Read in slow, clear voice, that extraordinary speech, the words that remade America, would take no more than three minutes.
In the space of mere 272 words, the best words in the best order, Lincoln alerts us to what is deepest in ourselves; he inspires a spiritual desire which he also gratifies. He attains what he avows: he gave the whole nation “a new birth of freedom” by affirming that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
We share Lincoln’s vision and ideals, even if they seem at time tarnished and worn, even if we admit that we have betrayed them more often than we remember. Were everything else about him forgotten, and only the Gettysburg Address together with some of his writings survived, he would stand revealed as an extraordinary human being, remembered for his compassionate leadership – for justice of mind.
Beside all Lincoln’s transcendental merits, he was the great refiner and polisher of our language. In the Address Lincoln achieves what all creative geniuses achieve. “Like Keats’s Grecian urn, he ‘tease[s] us out of thought/ As doth eternity’”.10
To draw an important theological-political analogy: as Jesus is to the Bible – the ideal to the human reality – so is Lincoln to the Union. The United States went to war in 1861 to preserve the Union; it emerged from the War in 1865 having created a nation. As Lincoln stated in 1862,
My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.11
In his famous essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, the British philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin wrote: “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows onebigthing’”.12 Using Berlin’s definition, the hedgehog is a thinker or leader who “relate[s] everything to a single central vision, a single, universal, organising principle”, while the fox “pursue[s] ends, often unrelated and even contradictory”. Lincoln knew that to acknowledge the right of the proslavery states to secede is to sign the death sentence of the United States, never to be restored. This earned Lincoln the title as the foremost hedgehog in American history.
Liberty and Union became a single, universal vision which was at the centre of Lincoln’s own universe. No less than “the one big thing” instead of two big things. Before 1861 the two words, “United States were used as a plural noun: the United States are a republic”.
When Lajos Kossuth arrived in New York in December 1851, determined to raise money and support for another revolution in Europe, he still used the plural. “The United States of America, conscious of their glorious calling as well as of their power, declared their resolve to become the protector of human rights.”
After the Gettysburg Address, the United States became a singular noun. Lincoln did not mention the Union at all but spoke of the “nation” five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationhood:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
The depth of my admiration for Lincoln is that, by grounding that Union in the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” – as the founding document of a single nation, he affirms the principle of Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and indispensable. America’s most revered national icon, the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of welcome to immigrants “yearning to breathe free”, was unveiled in 1886 as a response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From the very beginning, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia almost four centuries ago, slavery and its tragic legacy mocked the ideals of freedom and equality and the ethic of reciprocity.
Much as the genius of the amendable Constitution was praised, its architects were, to use President Obama’s phrase “blind to the whip and the chain”. Lincoln learned from experience that on the question of slavery the slave holding Southern states would concede nothing without a fight. Because The Gettysburg Address immortalised the concept of a single nation dedicated to equality as a national commitment, we live in a different, a better America.We have a better America because Lincoln had launched his presidency determined to be the leader who restored the Union. By the summer of 1864, Lincoln realised that if the south won the Civil War, it would probably be the death- knell of the eighty-eight-year old United States of America. Nothing illustrates it better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Building of a Ship. In that poem an abolitionist expresses fear that the slavery question will destroy the sacred Union:
Thout, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, – are all with thee!
As the nation’s leading Presidential historian Michael Beschloss put it, “When a young man recited the verse at the White House, Lincoln wept”.13
Lincoln ended up doing so much: changing America and the world just by the power of his words. There is but one shrine in the world of literary geniuses that I am ready to visit and make offering – and that is the mind and writing of Lincoln. For me, for millions of English speakers the sublime spirit of literature in English is still, and remains for the foreseeable future, shared by Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and, I may add, the works of Lincoln.
It is not without irony that the principal speaker at Gettysburg was Edward Everett, the great classicist, former president of Harvard College, and teacher of Emerson at Harvard. Yet it was Everett who wrote to Lincoln:“ Permit me to express my admiration of the thoughts expressed by you. I would be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Emerson was just as effusive. In his eulogy for the newly martyred President Lincoln, the “universal man” fit to stand in the “company of Shakespeare and Goethe”, Emerson pays tribute to Kossuth:
His [Lincoln] brief speech at Gettysburg will not easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion. This, and one another American speech, that of John Brown to the court that tried him, and a part of Louis Kossuth’s speech at Birmingham, can only be compared with each other, and with no fourth.14
In Emerson’s Pantheon of the “great men”, the “geniuses”, the “giants” who once were “angels of knowledge and their figures touched the sky”, two names, Lincoln and Kossuth, are engraved in gold.
In his Address to Kossuth at Concord, Emerson said (11 May 1852):
The man of Freedom, you are also the man of Fate. You do not elect, but you are elected by God and your genius to the task. We only see in you the angel of freedom, crossing sea and land; crossing parties, nationalities, private interests and self-esteem; dividing populations where you go, and drawing to you only the good…. This country of workingmen greets in you a worker. This republic greets in you a republican. We only say, “Well done, good and faithful”. You have earned your nobility at home. We admit you ad eundem (as they say in College). We admit you to the same degree, without new trial. We suspend all rules before so paramount a merit. You may well sit a doctor in the college of liberty. You have achieved your right to interpret our Washington. And I speak the sense not only of every generous American, but the law of mind, when I say that it is not those who live idly in the city called after his name, but those who, all over the world, think and act like him, who can claim to explain the sentiment of Washington.15
The Representative Men, the Great Men who inhabit a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labour and difficulty: Emerson–Kossuth–Lincoln. When the House of Representatives passed a resolution (12 September 1849) of sympathy with the “Cause of Hungarian Freedom”, it was Abraham Lincoln who read the resolution:
Resolved, that in their present glorious struggle for liberty, the Hungarians command our highest admiration and have our warmest sympathy. Resolved, that they have our most ardent prayers for their speedy triumph and final success.16
The search after the great man is the dream of youth and the most ennobling aspiration of my life as a student of history and ideas. I admire Emerson, Kossuth and Lincoln. They are great men; they are also representative; first of personal courage, and second, of ideas and ideals. The great are our better selves, the better angels of our nature with advantages. It is the only intellectual platform on which Emerson–Kossuth–Lincoln can meet. Their writings, their ideas, their art jolt us out of our habitual ways of thought with a shock like that of electricity.
The works of Lincoln are full of electricity and create a field of electricity in the mind of the reader. He shoots an idea, an image and a metaphor, a sentence into your imagination that quickens and embraces you. I find in Lincoln the most useful, helpful, uplifting phrases ever coined by human genius.
At the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on the wall it says there must first be ideas, then dedication, then a willingness to sacrifice and to preserve. On the other wall it says that even in triumph, the victors share complicity with the vanquished. I stood more than once at the Lincoln Memorial where people stand in silence and read the words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, both of which are inscribed in their entirety on facing marble walls.
When I think of Lincoln I think of the annals of the poor. When a journalist proposed to write his campaign biography, Lincoln said it could be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you would find in Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: “The short and simple annals of the poor. That’s also my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make of it.”
Let us give a sense of fullness to the haunted and haunting line which Lincoln chiselled permanently into memory:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.
“The short and simple annals of the poor”. That is also my life, and that is why my road to Lincoln is a homecoming.
1 The Portable Abraham Lincoln, ed. Andrew Delbanco, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 194.2 Emerson, “Abraham Lincoln”, in Works: Miscellany, Boston, 1891, p. 258.3 Manifold Greatness. The Making of the King James Bible, edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2011, p. 171.4 Manifold Greatness, p. 173.5 Nathan O. Hatch and Mark Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, Oxford and New York, 1982, Introduction, p. 5.6 The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Alex Ayres, Meridian, 1992, p. x.7 The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, p. 47.8 Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Library of America, 1989, 1:120.9 Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House:The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1997, p. 194.10 Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992, p. 62.11 Andrew Delbanco, ed., The Portable Abraham Lincoln, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 240.12 Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966, p. 1.13 Michael Beschloss, Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789–1989, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 124.14 The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete in One Volume, New York, 1929, p. 1219.15 The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. E. W. Emerson, 12 vols., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1903–1904, 11:397–401.16 Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. John Nicolay and John Hay, New York, F. D. Tandy Co, 1905, 2:127.