Finishing Lincoln

By A.M. Settineri.

The reference librarian must herself have shared the urge to finish Abraham Lincoln: A History before the year was over. The tenth and final volume arrived through the inter-library loan mail only a few days after she ordered it, and came this time from a college in Nebraska, since it was more immediately available. Disappointed as I was that it had evidently been rebound, differing from the green covers of the other volumes, it nonetheless appeared still to be a first edition volume of this massive biography.

The frontispiece is a drawing of Lincoln’s life mask, of which the real version, the footnote mentions, was in the possession of co-author John Hay back in 1890. Looking at this drawing, long before the melancholy chapter dedicated to April 14, 1865, I could feel a solemnity in the book which coupled well with the inexplicable sense of loss I felt. For nearly a year I had devoted more time and energy to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War than ever before in my life; while my interest in both shall always remain, when would there be another opportunity of such magnitude to pursue it?

Only 356 pages of the tenth volume consist of the work itself; the remaining one hundred or so pages are dedicated to a comprehensive index. It was, therefore, a quicker read than the others, and in just over three days I finished the book in time to return it to the library before they closed early for New Year’s Eve. I left the book on the reference librarians’ desk, along with a note thanking the two of them for all their vigor in obtaining the books, and for the enthusiasm they’ve shared with me this past year. Reading and education are tools to broaden our horizons.  The mere absorption of knowledge is the crux of this broadening, but the relationships you make along the way are a not unimportant side effect.

The initial printing of the books, after the condensed, serialized version appeared in The Century magazine, only sold seven thousand copies of the complete set. While it was a critical and historical success immediately, it wasn’t until a highly condensed, single-volume edition came out many years later that sales reflected the keen national interest in John Nicolay and John Hay’s fifteen-year labor to secure Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

The chief triumph—and frequently, chief criticism—of the work, is Nicolay and Hay’s blunt assessment of the cause of the Civil War: slavery. At the time of A History‘s publication, southern Confederate remembrance organizations had lobbied and campaigned and published with fervor in an effort to minimize slavery’s significance, instead shifting the blame for the war to the slightly nobler “states’ rights” context. This shift led some historians to view the war as a simple legal misunderstanding that could have been avoided if it hadn’t been for the hotheadedness of radical and reactionary politicians. Nicolay and Hay destroy that viewpoint using the South’s own words. Among others, they quote Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, whose “Cornerstone” speech declared that the United States Constitution “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.” Instead, he averred,

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

How anyone could, in the mere space of only two decades, forget or ignore the South’s intense and disturbing commitment to an inhumane, immoral, and evil institution, whitewashing slavery with the banner of states’ rights to explain the cleaving of our country in two, is beyond comprehension. Nicolay and Hay were disgusted by the short memories of their fellow citizens, and their reminder to the nation, though arguably ineffective in the face of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, was essential to the national consciousness.

It’s a reminder whose significance has not faded.  It may, in fact, be more important than ever. When Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency, rather than quieting forever the racial divide of our country, it seemed only to amplify it. Right-wing news stations and blogs rambled histrionically and inaccurately about the Islamification of America, or simply distilled their disapproval of his liberal policies into racial epithets. As an EMT, I often asked patients who the president was, in order to determine their orientation to reality. It was a depressing confirmation that they were not confused when they answered, “That damn n***** Democrat.” This happened more often than I care to remember. Now, under President Trump, these racial scars, opened up accidentally enough by Obama, bleed profusely with the President’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Additionally, the fact that he abstained from condemning the white power protestors in Charlottesville, taking care to say that counter-protestors were to blame as well, bears a disturbing resemblance to the southern revisionist history which Nicolay and Hay sought to combat.

In a sense, this is a large part of the loss I feel. I have spent ten months, ten volumes, nearly 4500 pages, and over a million and a half words with the greatest struggle, and the greatest president, our nation has ever seen. Our struggles now are different, and in a way incomparable with the struggles of the 1860s, yet they are in their own manner terrifying, depressing, divisive. That great contest was brought to an end by the guidance, magnanimity, patience, and compassion of a man more fitted to his time than any other. As for who shall bring our strife to an end… Let’s just say I miss Abraham Lincoln.

Previous Installment

The Gift of Lincoln

By A.M. Settineri.

The small things get me the most.  In the right light, the fine grain of the paper takes on a rough contour.  Every now and then I run my hands over the words to feel their faint imprint.  One of the many footnotes, serving both as citation and clarification of the description of the crowd at the Chicago convention which nominated Lincoln for the 1860 Republican ballot, states “One of the authors of this history was a spectator at all the sessions of the convention….”  What an amazing reminder that this history was real, witnessed.

I picked up Volume VII this past Wednesday.  The reference librarian happened to be at the circulation desk.  She asked if I’d ever read the six-volume Carl Sandburg biography of Lincoln.  “I had a chance to buy the complete set ten years ago, and I passed it up because I didn’t have two hundred dollars,” I said.  She told me to wait, and disappeared.  As I finished checking out, she appeared around the corner, laden down with six books.  It was the complete set of the Sandburg biography, the Sangamon Edition from 1949 in a red hardcover in nearly perfect condition.  “We decided to give our backup copy away this morning,” she said, “and I immediately thought of you.”  I turned the books over in my hands.  As the backup copy, it had never been on the shelf, so there was not a single library sticker, barcode, plastic binding, or any other deformity.  It was as perfect as if it had sat in a collector’s shop.  “You’re giving it away?”  “Yeah,” she said, “We re-bound the one on the shelf and decided to give this one away.  I’m glad I saw you.”

I have collected books for a long time.  Lacking the money to collect seriously, I have chanced on a few first editions, and consider myself lucky for at least finding old copies of books that I treasure, or that the literary world sees as valuable.  My prize until this point has been a first edition, twenty-third printing of The Old Man and the Sea, not nearly as valuable as a first printing, but still.  Now I have the Sandburg biography of Lincoln.  No first edition, but named the Sangamon, after the Illinois county which became his home; the Prairie Years and the War Years, bound in harmony; given to me by a librarian who would never have known me if I hadn’t started on this bizarre literary quest.

Previous Installment

Next Installment

Experiencing Lincoln

By A.M. Settineri.

By now, I’m in the first hundred pages of Volume VII. Only now do I perceive the different writing styles of Nicolay and Hay, although I must admit I’m not entirely sure who is the more mechanical and dry, and who is the jester linguist. While I have nothing but my intuition to rely on, I suspect Hay is the more liberal of the two authors, prone to comic turns-of-phrase and pro-Union editorializing. I imagine it is he who wrote in Volume I, while describing Lincoln’s failed 1832 campaign for the Illinois General Assembly, that many people came to his stump speeches simply to drink the free whisky being parceled out, and that their behavior thus became “highly unparliamentary.” And who but Hay, when discussing Jefferson Davis’ reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation in Volume VI, could have written that the Confederate president “ransacked his dictionary for terms to stigmatize it.”

Beyond the enjoyment of the volumes themselves, though, the experience of reading this biography has been one of community. It takes me anywhere from two weeks to a month to read each volume, and about a week for the next volume to arrive. Since I will not disrespect these books by shoving them clumsily through a drop-box slot, I have had many interactions with the library staff. When the reference librarians are not present, I give the book to whoever is at the circulation desk. “The drop-box is over there,” they say. This book is 128 years old, I tell them. There’s no way I’m going to let it sit in a bin till the next James Patterson novel crashes into it. A conversation usually follows, and by now, whenever I walk into the library, someone will inevitably ask me what year I’m up to in the war. “1863,” I’ll say, “finally.” The primary reference librarian is usually ordering the next volume as I walk up to drop one off; we’re on a first-name basis at this point.

Previous Installment

Next Installment

Reading Lincoln

By A.M. Settineri.

Nicolay and Hay had received permission from Lincoln himself to write his authorized biography, but had put off the project following his assassination. In 1867, Isaac Newton Arnold, a U.S. Representative from Illinois during the Civil War, published The History of Abraham Lincoln and the Overthrow of Slavery; in 1872 Ward Hill Lamon, who served as Lincoln’s personal bodyguard on the train to Washington following his election in 1860, then later as U.S. Marshal of Washington, D.C., published The Life of Abraham Lincoln: From His Birth to His Inauguration as President. The presence of these books caused demand for biographies of the late president to decline, further discouraging Nicolay and Hay’s endeavor.

It was at this time as well that ‘Southern apologia’ literature was gaining popularity, emphasizing the bravery of the rebel soldiers while glossing over southern states’ aggressive secession despite overtures for negotiation, and the cause of the war—the South’s commitment to, and prescription of, black slavery as the natural order and indivisible foundation of their Confederacy. While they agreed that the time for publication was not near, Nicolay and Hay resolved to get to work.

Having obtained Robert Lincoln’s consent to use his father’s papers in 1874, Nicolay and Hay began research in 1875, with Hay beginning his first drafts of the mammoth work in 1876. They sold the serialization rights to The Century magazine, and the editor, Hay’s friend Richard Watson Gilder, allegedly did his best to temper partisanship despite Nicolay and Hay’s decidedly Unionist view. The first installment was featured in the November 1886 issue of The Century.

Despite being nominally a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the work is probably best seen as a history of the Civil War, and a thorough one. Nicolay and Hay cite their sources in the page margins, and it is obvious from the many books they reference, as well as the personal letters and diaries of notable figures such as Edwin Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, Gideon Welles, and the generals of both the Union and Confederate armies, that the book is a reliable factual text. Many pages are devoted to the national political climate leading up to and surrounding the war, with a good portion of Volume I abandoning Lincoln as the focal point, instead devoting itself to the situation in “Bleeding Kansas.” Subsequent volumes describe nearly every moderate and major battle of the Civil War in great detail; there are whole chapters dedicated to the U.S. Ambassador to England’s correspondence with England’s foreign minister regarding President Lincoln’s firm objection to any foreign intervention on either side; there are even lengthy chapters describing France and England’s designs in Mexico during the same years as our Civil War. According to historian Joshua Zeitz, the voluminous detail led Life magazine years later to propose in jest a reader’s game, the object being to locate five references to Lincoln in a given volume, if, indeed, any could be found.

Previous Installment

Next Installment