- Historic Sites
An Epitaph For Mr. Lincoln
The curiously troubled origin of a brief and fitting inscription
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
‘For whom,’ he murmurs, ‘For us.’ ‘For me.’ ”
Cortissoz added that he had worked over his words much as French had labored over his statue, Guerin his murals, or Bacon the building. “The proposed change hurts me as the rehandling of your work would hurt you or French. It hurts me not in any egotistical way. It hurts me as an artist. For it threatens my central purpose in a work of art.”
Bacon now argued on behalf of Cortissoz’s inscription for what he no doubt hoped would be the final time. He forwarded Cortissoz’s letter to Taft, together with two tracings of the sculpted words, one in their original form, a second in Harding’s revision, and attached a letter of his own. He emphasized that every phrase in a terse lapidary inscription should read easily and flow logically toward the next. Harding’s version repeated the words of the in adjacent lines, which was awkward. Cortissoz ended each line with a fine and evocative noun or adverb—temple, people, Union, Lincoln, and forever. Harding’s placement of the verb saved was good enough, but it broke the progression. All in all, Cortissoz’s words simply flowed more smoothly and logically and were more appropriate.
Taft forwarded the letters to Harding, writing, “I enclose herewith some correspondence that will amuse you, and perhaps instruct you, as it did me, in the artistic sense and the mysterious art and nerves of a lapidary. You will consider it a ‘tempest in a teapot’ so far as the artist is concerned, as I am inclined to do, but I submit it for your judgment.”
As originally written and finally adopted, the five lines flow smoothly and logically.
Meanwhile, Cortissoz’s nerves got the better of him. After a brief telephone conversation with Bacon on May 1, he wrote him a formal letter withdrawing the inscription unless it was adopted in the original form. Any alteration, after all, made it someone else’s work. In a personal covering letter to Bacon, he was more candid. “It would be agony to me to see that on the wall in the form proposed by Mr. Harding and approved by Mr. Taft. I would feel forever as you would feel if they stuck a dormer window into the roof of your temple.” He added, “I do not care what Harding and Taft think of me in the matter. If they are capable of insensitively mangling my work I am indifferent to their opinion of me.” He closed with hope. Maybe it would work out after all.
It did, thanks to Harding, or perhaps to his weariness over the question. On May 2 he returned the correspondence and blueprints to Taft. “I have no desire to argue the matter with the architect and artist. Probably they know much more about the matter than either you or I or both of us knows,” he noted, and added somewhat peevishly: “I am not able to agree with them, but I do not hold the matter to be sufficiently important to undertake to overrule their judgment in the matter. The inscriotion will be auite agreeable to me either way.”
Bacon immediately telegraphed New York on hearing this result, and Cortissoz was ecstatic. This was the “finest thing that has happened in all my life and I’ll never be able to tell you how grateful I am to you....I suppose you are setting the stone carvers right to work. All the time now I shall go about with the sound of chisels ringing in my ears.”
The stone carvers finished their work by dedication time, on Memorial Day, 1922. The sky was clear and the weather warm and sunny for a crowd of thirty-five thousand. President Harding, who took his ceremonial duties seriously and performed them well, praised Lincoln’s deeds and what he symbolized to most Americans. The poet Edwin Markham read a special verse on Lincoln. Dr. Robert Moton, head of the Tuskegee Institute, spoke on behalf of the nation’s blacks. The artists and architect sat among the dignitaries, the magnificent white temple behind them a testament to their success. Cortissoz did not appear, but his inscription was set off in a box under a photograph of the memorial on the front page of the program.