Friday, February 13, 2015

`As Frequently as Any Unprofessional Reader'

In a letter he wrote from Springfield, Ill., to Mrs. Orville H. Browning on Jan. 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln, then a member of the Illinois General Assembly, tells a tall-tale, purportedly true, worthy of Mark Twain. It involves the matchmaking efforts of another friend on behalf of her sister:

“I had seen the said sister some three years before, thought her inteligent [sic] and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding life through hand in hand with her. Time passed on, the lady took her journey and in due time returned, sister in company sure enough. This stomached me a little; for it appeared to me, that her coming so readily showed that she was a trifle too willing…” 

The letter continues for more than two pages, the story grows shaggier, Lincoln’s language grows spicier and more mock-eloquent. The future president and his blind date finally meet: 

“In a few days we had an interview, and although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her. I knew she was over-size, but now she appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an `old maid,’ and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appellation; but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother…” 

And so on, with a swelling tone of mock-alarm – and this from the man who later gave us the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. The publication of Lincoln’s Selected Writings (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015), edited by David S. Reynolds  (biographer of Whitman and John Brown) gives me the ready excuse to marvel at the words of our greatest president and one of our greatest writers of prose. That he and Ulysses S. Grant should both fall into the latter category is one of the minor miracles of synchronicity in all of history. In the passage above, the aptness of the Shakespeare allusion impressed me as amusing (anyone can call a woman fat) and another reminder that Lincoln was no Kentucky-born bumpkin. Reynolds quotes another letter, this one written in 1863, six weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, to James H. Hackett, an actor renowned for his Falstaff. Hackett had sent the president a copy of his recent book, Notes and Comments upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare: With Criticisms and Correspondence. The president thanks Hackett and writes: 

“Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing `O, my offence is rank’ surpasses that commencing `To be, or not to be.’ But pardon this small attempt at criticism.”

The soliloquy the president cites is from Act III, Scene 3, and is spoken not by Hamlet but Claudius, after Polonius’ exit. Hamlet has just said to the king: 

“Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,
Thy natural magic and dire property
On wholesome life usurp immediately.” 

And Claudius replies: 

“O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murther! Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect.”

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