Monday, February 13, 2006

Whispering dreams and wistful dust

Yesterday was his birthday.

Abraham Lincoln was born 197 years ago to the day Sunday, on a cold winter morning in a small cabin near Hodgenville, Ky. Carl Sandburg, gentle poet and Lincoln's most lyrical biographer, once wrote that Tom and Nancy Lincoln "welcomed into a world of battle and blood, of whispering dreams and wistful dust, a new child, a boy."

Lincoln is, sadly, a fixture now, taken for granted like the copper coin that bears his image. But he endures. Lincoln books abound. Arguments rage over everything from his sexuality to his depression to his killer's death. The History Channel aired a three hour documentary on him just last month.

And yet we hardly know this Kentuckian who has been called both a dictator and a savior. The myth and the man merged the moment his spirit slipped the surly bonds of earth that April morning when Edwin Stanton said that the fallen president "now belongs to the ages." But still historians look.

Two new books appeared on the Great Rail-Splitter at the end of last year. I haven't read Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, "Team of Rivals," on Lincoln's administration. A friend says it is a fascinating study of the man and his cabinet, perhaps the most talented yet contentious such body ever assembled.

The other book, "Lincoln's Melancholy," is a fascinating study of Lincoln's well-known but barely understood battle with depression. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk writes that Lincoln endured two major depressive episodes -- one after the death of Ann Rutledge, the woman some believe was the love of his life; the other in the winter of 1840-41.

Shenk contends that Lincoln's dip into psychological darkness, and his recovery from it, instilled in him a purpose. He became convinced that he would accomplish great things, that his fate in life was to complete an important task.

Lincoln remarkably was able to recover from depression without any of our modern treatments. No Paxil to pop. No psychiatrist's couch on which to lie. The known treatments were downright barbaric. One required him to be drained of blood.

Shenk knows something about the subject. He is a survivor. It gives the book an added credibility and, perhaps more importantly, a certain pathos with its subject.

Lincoln's birthday passed quietly yesterday. It's not a holiday anymore. His and Washington's birthdays were combined a few years ago and celebrated as the preposterous President's Day. (Who really should be honoring Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B. Hayes?) It is a joke. And a shame.

But Abraham Lincoln is above all that anyway. Perhaps Sandburg said it best:

"There is no new thing to be said about Lincoln," he wrote. "There is no new thing to be said of the mountains, or of the sea, or of the stars. The years go their way, but the same old mountains lift their granite shoulders above the drifting clouds; the same mysterious sea beats upon the shore; the same silent stars keep holy vigil above a tired world.

"But to the mountains and sea and stars men turn forever in unwearied homage. And thus with Lincoln. For he was a mountain in grandeur of soul. He was a sea in deep undervoice of mystic loneliness. He was a star in steadfast purity of purpose and service. And he abides."

Indeed he does -- in books, on television, in our national discourse. Lincoln's spirit lies deep in the shadows but is ever-present, hovering somewhere between whispering dreams and wistful dust.


Blogger Dewayne said...

you had better take that jab at Rutherford B Hayes back......

4:53 PM  

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