Archive for Sunday, February 10, 2002

February is a good month to commemorate Abraham Lincoln

February 10, 2002


February bestirs me to think about and write about Abraham Lincoln. We were so brought up on Lincoln in school days. Lincoln freeing the slaves. Lincoln the store employee walking miles to return a penny (I think it was a penny). Lincoln studying by firelight. Lincoln in a log cabin. Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. And the presidency and the assassination. In school we sang, "Washington and Jackson, dear old Lincoln, Grant and Lee. Â"

In February 1974, I did a radio hour, "Our February Presidents: Lincoln" (and one on Washington). I did one called "Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness." I did "Lincoln and Sandburg," which had Carl Sandburg reading the Gettysburg Address. The only reading of the address that surpasses Sandburg's is the one by Charles Laughton. Makes you bawl.

We've gone to the Lincoln places, the site of his birth in Kentucky, the boyhood home in Indiana, all the Lincoln "artifacts" in New Salem, the home in Springfield, the rather garish tomb in that city, the Mount Rushmore memorial, the beautiful memorial with the Daniel Chester French statue.

As I thought about this column, I went to my book shelves and pulled down the Lincoln books. I'm sure the big historians would say that I've missed the important ones, but I go on what I know, and I am doing this column. First, the Sandburg books, "The Prairie Years" and "The War Years." Benjamin Thomas' biography, "Abraham Lincoln." Billy Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, and his "Life of Lincoln." Burton Hendricks' "Lincoln's War Cabinet." David Donald's collection of essays, "Lincoln Reconsidered." Stefan Lorant's little "Life of Lincoln." Paul Horgan's "Citizen of New Salem." Richard Current's "The Lincoln Nobody Knows."

There was much about the Civil War president in the histories of Bruce Catton, the most beautiful prose in all of these. Allan Nevins' Civil War histories had much about Lincoln.

I'm sure the movies made their contributions. The first Lincoln movie I saw was D.W. Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln," which isn't very good. Walter Huston was our president, and Una Merkel was Ann Rutledge. Someone playing Lincoln scolded James Stewart in "Of Human Hearts" for not writing home to mother. Recently I have seen again both "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," Henry Fonda in the first, Raymond Massey in the second. These are fine pictures.

About as impressive still, in my fading memories, is one called "Little Abe Lincoln," by, I believe, Bernie Babcock. My boyhood friend Bryce Roe got the book for Christmas, and I borrowed it, and read it, and my sister read it, and I read it again, and my sister read it again. It had all the legends of the young boy, the harsh father, the poor cabin, the woods, splitting logs, losing his mother to what they called the "milk sick," and trying to find books to read.

How that has stayed with me. My Lincoln was a boy of the frontier. In that frontier country, Lincoln collected all the yarns that he'd tell later on. Wasn't it Lincoln who told of the man who didn't like to take sides and saw his wife attacked by a bear and said, "Go it, woman! Go it, bear!"?

Abe Lincoln comes across as a man of solemnity, and it's hard to think of him as a man of laughter. But I have a lot of stories about the witty Lincoln. When Adlai Stevenson, also a man of Springfield, was criticized for his witty words in the '52 campaign, the New Yorker had an editorial about the dangers of humor in politics and said the only really witty president we'd had was Lincoln and somebody killed him.

"Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness." "We're Coming, Father Abra'm." I have a CD that gives us the songs Lincoln liked. How all of this is in our history, our legends of our greatest president, our greatest American.

 Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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