Sunday, January 23, 2011

`The Things I Want to Know Is in Books'

Dennis Friend Hanks, the cousin of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, was born in Hardin County, Kentucky, in 1799, the year of George Washington’s death. He lived with the Lincoln family in Indiana and married Lincoln’s stepsister, Sarah Elizabeth Johnston. He and the future president, ten years his junior, appear to have been genuinely friendly and close when young, but Hanks, an inveterate mythologizer who lived to age ninety-three, probably embellished his recollections. Scholars are wary and Hanks quotes young Lincoln, almost as a disclaimer, saying:

“Denny, when a story learns you a good lesson, it ain’t no lie. God tells truth in parables. They’re easier for common folks to understand and recollect.”

I take this from Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, (edited by Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Stanford University Press, 1996), a gathering of anecdotes about the president from men and women, prominent and otherwise, who knew him. It’s reminiscent of Johnsoniana: Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., a volume devoted to another backward, unlikely candidate for greatness. Lincoln and Johnson shared bookish tastes, yet lived squarely in their respective times and places. Here’s another sample of Hanks recalling Lincoln’s conversation, recorded in his ninetieth year:

“Denny, the things I want to know is in books. My best friend’s the man who’ll get me one.”

I’ve had many such “best friends.” Verbatim or not, it’s true to Lincoln – and to Johnson, son of a Lichfield bookseller. Today, almost on a whim, readers can find any book they fancy. In eighteenth-century England and nineteenth-century Kentucky and Indiana, books were precious and rare. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, reports the future president saying in the mid-eighteen-fifties, after buying a set of science books:

“I have wanted such a book for years because I sometimes make experiments and have thoughts about the physical world that I do not know to be true nor false. I may, by this book, correct my errors and save time and expense.”

How long has it been since a future president had such thoughts and acted on them? Johnson, too, was given to amateur science experiments. In the “Preface” to his great Dictionary, Johnson refers to his “fortuitous and unguided excursions into books.” Is there any other sort of literary excursion?

No comments: