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Ken Burns

June 2024
1min read


It is rare on first meeting that someone completely overtakes one’s heart, and so it has been for me with Abraham Lincoln. He has gradually and imperceptibly accrued in me like the layers of a pearl: laid down over time, in a mysteriously hidden process, owing as much to friction and irritation as to inspiration. He is quite simply the most important man I’ve ever gotten to know. He has helped me know myself more clearly and helped define my own in-scrutable love of country.

“HE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT MAN I’ve ever gotten to know. He has helped me know myself more clearly .”

Lincoln came down to me first in school, of course, clichéd and godlike, as mythically untouchable as our Founding Fathers, Number 16 (like a baseball star), only to be then suddenly replaced, deposed really, in true adolescent fashion, by this stubbornly flawed being who was inexcusably tardy on emancipation and just a man. I came to revel in newfound revisionism, more ecstatic in the fact that I could revise than in the prospect of negating and abandoning Old Abe altogether.

I grew up. Somewhere in the course of making a documentary film on the Civil War, he began to creep up on me, in words mostly, his cadences overtaking and redefining mine, his imagery and soul-stirring aspiration better than anyone else’s, his words and phrases and stories somehow always fresher tomorrow than today. Those words changed my life. Sitting with friends and family late at night, I would regale them with passage after passage, speech after speech, letter after letter, learning ever more myself with each new reading. Friends and daughters would shake their heads, smiling, tolerant, happy for me.

One familiar Lincoln sentence has always stood out, one I would return to again and again, repeat and memorize, keep . In it I meet and re-meet him and greedily bind and graft his magnificent vision to mine. I am rarely troubled that the exchange is so one-sided, but then perhaps that is the true gift of history. In a few words—poetry written by a President no less- I am introduced to a real friend: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

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