July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
Some distinguished enthusiasts reveal just how they fell under his powerful spell
Although Lincoln’s birthday has disappeared from our calendar of national holidays (swallowed up into the convenient but somehow unsatisfying Presidents’ Day), there is no dampening of enthusiasm among America’s “Lincoln people.” During this, his 190th anniversary year, the Lincoln field is enjoying a renaissance. New books and film projects abound, and Lincoln people remain as impassioned as before and more diverse than ever.
Although Lincoln’s birthday has disappeared from our calendar of national holidays (swallowed up into the convenient but somehow unsatisfying Presidents’ Day), there is no dampening of enthusiasm among America’s “Lincoln people.” During this, his 190th anniversary year, the Lincoln field is enjoying a renaissance. New books and film projects abound, and Lincoln people remain as impassioned as before and more diverse than ever. Politicians, historians, actors, businesspeople, and collectors continue to mine his speeches and letters, debate the meaning of his Presidency, argue for the right to walk in his large footsteps, affix beards to impersonate him for films, television, and pageants, and pursue artifacts associated with his life, despite the stratospheric prices such items now command. Exactly what possesses these admirers?
The first Lincoln enthusiasts came by their interest out of personal experience. Early biographers like William H. Herndon (law partner), Henry J. Raymond (party chairman during Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign), Francis B. Carpenter (White House artist in residence), and William O. Stoddard (assistant private secretary to the President) drew from a well of private memories to craft their portraits.
One of the first great Lincoln collectors, Osborn H. Oldroyd, had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was wounded in battle. Later, his interest ripening into obsession, he rented Lincoln’s house in Springfield, Illinois, and filled it with relics and books. Eventually he moved his family and his mammoth collection to a new residence, the house in Washington where Lincoln died.
Nearly half a century later President Theodore Roosevelt still could boast that his admiration for his predecessor (“I do as I believe Lincoln would have done”) was inspired by personal observation. As a small boy in 1865 he had leaned out the window of his grandfather’s house on Fourteenth Street in New York City to watch Lincoln’s funeral cortege pass by on Broadway below. And Carl Sandburg, who lived until 1967, I could recall hearing “the talk of men and women who had eaten with Lincoln, given him a bed overnight, heard his jokes and lingo, remembered his silences and his mobile face.” Such memories transformed the poet into a biographer.
More recent devotees claimed less direct, but equally irresistible, inspiration. For the actor Raymond Massey it was simply the lure of the title role in Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (during whose Broadway run he pursued a robust New York nightlife “without regard to what Mr. L. would have done”). The Hungarian-born historian Stefan Lorant, who died in 1997 at the age of ninety-six, remembered picking a Lincoln book out of a laundry basket full of old volumes while a prisoner in a concentration camp. “A prison cell,” he recalled, “is just the right place to get the impact of Lincoln’s philosophy and be lured under his spell.” The legendary book dealer Ralph G. Newman, whose last interview, granted shortly before his death in July last year, was for this article, reminisced about hearing a lecture, while still a boy, by an old woman who had been a baby sitter to Lincoln’s sons in the White House. To Newman—and all the others- Lincoln remained a “vicarious contemporary.”
In search of a common thread of inspiration, I asked a number of prominent enthusiasts precisely how, when, and why they fell under Lincoln’s spelt Each person surveyed recalled a different impulse. But in their very variety the stories speak with clarity and eloquence of the grip Lincoln still holds on his admirers.
Assembling this survey, I did hear one comment again and again: Respondents expressed intense curiosity about what their peers had said. It seems none of us ever bothered to ask the others.