A number of years ago, when I was writing a public television series for the Smithsonian Institution, I watched a woman in one of the museum’s conservation labs, restoring what appeared to be an old top hat.
What’s its story, I asked her? Oh, she replied nonchalantly, this is the hat Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night he was assassinated.
Actor Sam Waterston, aka District Attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order, had an even more visceral experience when he was preparing to play Abraham Lincoln and went to the Library of Congress to research the part.
“This guy took me down and down and down into the bowels of the library, down a long hall… all the way to what felt like the back of the building,” Waterston told my colleague Bill Moyers on a special edition of Bill Moyers Journal. There he met a curator who said, “Hold out your hands. These are the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was shot.”
Two pairs of glasses, a watch fob, a pocketknife, a handkerchief, monogrammed, “A. Lincoln” by his wife, Mary Todd. A wallet, inside of which were newspaper clippings and a Confederate five-dollar bill – a souvenir, perhaps, of the visit Lincoln had made to the conquered city of Richmond, Virginia, just a few days earlier.
“It was a galvanizing and very thrilling thing,” Waterston said. Proximity to such telling totems of America’s story, as sacred in their own way as the remains of a saint in a cathedral reliquary, make Lincoln human – as have Waterston’s various portrayals of the our greatest President on stage and television.
So, too, the words of writers who have made Lincoln an enduring literary subject from his own lifetime right up to today, written about, it’s said, more than any other historic personage with the exception of Jesus Christ.
Lincoln was assassinated 144 years ago on Good Friday, and so Waterston is appearing on Bill Moyers Journal this week (premiering on PBS on Friday, April 10 at 9 pm ET – check local listings) to read excerpts reflecting the ways in which Lincoln’s image has evolved and has been interpreted by great American writers – from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman to Delmore Schwartz and Allen Ginsberg.
Featured with Waterston is historian Harold Holzer, who has written, co-written or edited 22 books about Lincoln, including “The Lincoln Anthology,” published by the Library of America, from which Waterston’s readings were chosen. “Lincoln did nothing less than revolutionize the American political vocabulary,” Holzer said. “But no political leader, no political writer, not even Lincoln, can define his own place in the landscape of memory. That judgment belongs to those who portray the man in life, massage his biography into metaphor, and refine its meaning over what Lincoln called ‘all distances of time and space.'”
Lincoln himself said,”Writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world… Great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.” Some of the authors represented actually met him – Hawthorne, for example, a Democrat who nonetheless was won over by Lincoln’s “native sense” despite a “physiognomy as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States.”
“I liked this sallow, queer, sagacious visage,” he wrote, “… and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place.”
Whitman, Whittier and Melville worshipped him in death; African-American leader Frederick Douglass met and admired him, but kept a slight, although respectful distance, one generated by centuries of enslavement and doubt. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent,” he declared 11 years after Lincoln’s passing. “Only by measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.”
Forty-six years later, in 1922, civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois said, “Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century… the most human and loveable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet, triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”
Twentieth century poet Allen Ginsberg saw Lincoln through a “radical lens,” Holzer said. “A rallying cry for, not an impediment to, revolutionary change… an urgently needed inspiration.”
“Let the Railsplitter Awake!” Ginsberg cried, in his “Homage to Neruda:”
“Let Abraham come back, let his old yeast
rise in green and gold earth of Illinois,
and lift the axe in his city
against the new slave makers
against their slave whips
against the venom of the print houses
against all the bloodsoaked
merchandise they wanna sell.”
And so it goes, right up through Barack Obama’s evocation of Lincoln’s memory in speeches and at his own inauguration. “Lincoln is an inspiration to Barack Obama,” Harold Holzer told Bill Moyers. “[He] brings us nearer to the completion of the unfinished work that Lincoln spoke about at Gettysburg. His election is a validation of that dream, even if it took 150 years to get to this point…
“Two little girls, Sasha and Malia Obama, who are the descendents, through their mother’s side, of enslaved people, might this very evening be playing in the Lincoln bedroom, which was Lincoln’s office, and the room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That is the apex of the arc of history since the Civil War.”
MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.