Thoughts on finishing Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln

I’m finally reading Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln. I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, this would have been one of the less sensational items on the list.

The six-volume biography has followed me around for years – I received it as a “free gift” when I joined the Book of the Month Club during my college years. It has hung over me, taunted me, nagged at me, ever since, like that book report or research paper that has to be done, but you just can’t seem to get started on.

The nagging this set of books subjected me to became more pronounced in the last year of so. When I participated in a leadership class that included a review of local history, I was reminded of the persistent legend that Lincoln’s mother lived in Gaston County and conceived Abraham before she met Tom Lincoln. I went home and consulted Sandburg’s volume 1. He said this Nancy Hanks wasn’t that other Nancy Hanks of loose behavior, so I think he knew of these and other rumors. He also said Abe had an older sister and that Abe was born long after the family set up in Kentucky, but made no other comment. Having no time to read the rest (“miles to go before I sleep,” to borrow a line from one of Sandburg’s contemporaries), I put the book back on the shelf.

Then I visited Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, and prominently displayed on his bookshelves – and in pictures of the poet himself – was an identical six volumes. This thing wouldn’t leave me alone – it was chasing me all over the place.

So last fall I finally picked up volume 1 of The Prairie Years and started. I almost put it down again. Carl Sandburg, you no doubt remember, was a poet known for his distinctive voice. He was also a journalist and folk singer. All of those varied occupations show in his style. If you are accustomed to the glib narrative style most often adapted by writers of today’s popular biographies, Sandburg’s style takes some getting used to.

After awhile, though, I was hooked, and I’ve been reading a few pages almost every day since. I’m now about 50 pages from the end of volume 4 of The War Years, the last book. Soon I’ll be finished and will take up one of the books I received for Christmas, probably the last volume of Edmund Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt. But I’ll put the completed set of Sandburg back on the shelf with more than the usual sadness.

First, it’s impossible for me to read a biography of Lincoln and not be saddened, especially when reading about his assassination and its aftermath. His presidency was perhaps the saddest in our history, when the fragmented nation looked upon its own suffering as deserved punishment from a just God (although the people disagreed over what sin was being punished). Lincoln seemed to absorb and embody that suffering. To see him, and along with him the nation, emerge from the war and then be struck down almost immediately (as he often predicted), is truly painful. I found myself wishing for Booth to miss his opportunity, as he almost did, even though I knew full well the events were preserved unchangeable in the past.

Second, I find myself retracing the history that followed Lincoln’s death. He had talked in his Second Inaugural Address about “malice towards none, charity for all.” More informally, he had encouraged his generals to “let them up easy” when dealing with the defeated South. Had he lived, I think his influence would have moderated the voices calling for harsh punishment of the South for its rebellion. The country might have been spared some of the extremes of reconstruction and the sectional anger that held our country apart for a century or more after the war.

I have to mention one part of the reaction to Lincoln’s death that was not in any history books I remember reading. Many “decent” people regretted that Lincoln died in a theater. Even Dr. Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington where Lincoln frequently attended services, said in a sermon six weeks after the assassination:

“It will always be a matter of deep regret to thousands that our lamented President fell in the theatre…. For my own part, I have always regarded the theatre as in the main a school of vice and corruption – the illumined and decorated gateway through which thousands are constantly passing into the embrace of gaiety and folly, intemperance and lewdness, infamy and ruin.”

Dr. Gurley, as well as many others, urged people to avoid the theater and teach their children to avoid it. One more extreme, if less widespread, view held that by going to the theater that night Lincoln had been out of God’s jurisdiction and thus was beyond divine protection.

Of course, the theater was often considered morally suspect even before Lincoln. But his death seems to have caused many leaders to redouble their condemnation. I wonder if those sentiments were a source of the feelings of many in my grandfather’s generation, who called “shows,” movies, and television “the works of the Devil,” and refused to have anything to do with them?

The final reason for my melancholy as I finish this long biography is that, as with any project, there’s a sense of letdown when it’s done. I know that when I turn that final page and read the last word, the sense of accomplishment will instantly turn to a feeling that, after all, this book might be done, but there are so many more I haven’t got around to yet.

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