Sunday, June 07, 2009

`A Born Writer'

What makes the lives and works of a few people – Samuel Johnson, Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong chief among them – so inexhaustibly compelling is their likeness to us, their homely humanity, mingled with unlikely, seemingly extra-human genius. The latter quality, I suppose, is always unlikely, certainly rare, but somehow it doesn’t surprise us in Mozart, Pasteur or Proust. Perhaps humble origins (Armstrong spent time in the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys – an orphanage), spells of poverty and scanty formal education are part of the answer. Whatever the explanation, we can imagine ourselves as Johnson, Lincoln or Armstrong without presuming to share a fraction of their gifts. What we share are the modesty of their human dimensions.

The Library of American has dedicated one of its better collections to the 16th president, to mark his bicentenary. Harold Holzer edits The Lincoln Anthology, and what fun it must have been digging around in archives and out-of-print books, in search of what the subtitle makes explicit: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now. Which prompts my only quibble: “Great” is grossly misleading. Many contributors deserve the appellation (Whitman, Melville, Twain, Tolstoy), and others ought to be included out of a commitment to oddness or documentary completeness (Karl Marx, Henrik Ibsen, Bram Stoker). But why Irving Stone, Dale Carnegie, E.L Doctorow and, God help us, Allen Ginsberg (who adapts the words of another anti-American blowhard, Pablo Neruda)? That Lincoln’s humanity attracted diverse, multinational (Victor Hugo?) admiration is inarguable.

I’ve written before about the selections by Marianne Moore and Jacques Barzun, though another passage from the latter (“Lincoln the Writer”) is worth reproducing:

“One does not need to be a literary man to see that Lincoln was a born writer, nor a psychologist to guess that here is a youth of uncommon mold – strangely self-assertive, yet detached, and also laboring under a sense of misfortune.”

Like any good anthology, this one is assembled for savoring, not a forced march. First, I read some old favorites – Whitman in particular, but also extracts from William Dean Howells’ 1860 campaign biography and Gen. Grant’s Personal Memoirs – then moved on to the curiosities, such as Stoker’s (from “Lecture on Abraham Lincoln,” 1893):

“Lincoln had feet of enormous size, uncommon even in a region where bare feet or moccasins were the ordinary wear for some generations of pioneers.”

Stoker (1842-1912), by the way, traveled throughout the United States as manager of the English actor Henry Irving, was an admirer of Whitman and met the poet in 1884. New to me was Ibsen’s contribution, “Abraham Lincoln’s Murder” (translated from the Norwegian by John Northam), a poem written shortly after the president’s assassination, when the future playwright was 37. It’s deliciously awful:

“But if we all sink in corruption’s lair
don’t count on laments from me
over each of the poisonous flowers that flare
and mass on this age’s tree.”

Edmund Wilson’s Lincoln piece from Patriotic Gore is still bullheaded and ungenerous, Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body is still unreadable, and Shelby Foote’s telling of the assassination and its aftermath in The Civil War: A Narrative is still heartbreaking – particularly when read as the coda to the preceding three volumes:

“Bells were tolling all over Washington by the time Lincoln’s body, wrapped in a flag and placed in a closed hearse, was on its way back to the White House, escorted (as he had not been when he left, twelve hours before) by an honor guard of soldiers and preceded by a group of officers walking bareheaded in the rain. He would lie in state, first in the East Room, then afterwards in the Capitol rotunda, preparatory to the long train ride back to Springfield, where he would at last be laid to rest. `Nothing touches the tired spot,’ he had said often in the course of the past four years. Now Booth’s derringer had reached it.”


worm said...

I certainly don't think of Doctorow as great in any sense.

The Tallest Elf said...

thanks - this is great to read