Abraham Lincoln by Adam I.P. Smith was published in 2014 by the Britain-based History Press as part of its Pocket Giants series of very short — 100 or so pages — biographies of great world figures.
It’s a series that includes works about Jesus, Jane Austen, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, John Lennon, King Arthur and Buddha, among many others. The idea, of course, is that these biographies are extremely concise, but there’s also a bit of a flair to them. They don’t read like a long encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) entry but take a point of view.
For example, Nick Higham’s book on King Arthur focuses on the question of whether there was a real person at the heart of the myth and looks closely at how layers of story and anecdote were added to the legend throughout the centuries.
Smith’s aim in Abraham Lincoln is to explain his subject to non-Americans who aren’t steeped in the vision of the 16th U.S. President as a civic saint, a martyr for the nation and a political and patriotic touchstone. Smith writes:
Abraham Lincoln qualifies as a historical ‘giant’ not because of the ways his image and the stories about him have drawn so many to him, but quite simply because he was at the centre of events that shaped the modern world….
Through his words as well as his actions — for his elegant, unpretentious prose makes him one of the world’s greatest political speechwriters — Lincoln is imagined as having ‘re-founded’ the American nation. If George Washington brought what he called the ‘great experiment’ of the new republic into being, it was Lincoln who defined it and secured its future — and thus laid the foundations for the United States’ twentieth-century dominance….
Lincoln came to represent democracy more perfectly than any other figure, not just because of what he said or did, but because of whom he was.
A workable, clunky framework
It’s certainly possible to quibble with some of those assertions. Yet, really, they provide a broad-brush idea of Lincoln’s importance to his own nation as well as to the world.
In telling who Lincoln was, Smith presents an opening overview and then follows with nine chapters dealing with Lincoln’s life chronologically and each emphasizing an aspect of his character — pioneer, self-made man, harbinger of war, nationalist, war leader, emancipator, poet, politician and martyr.
It’s a workable, if somewhat clunky, framework. On the one hand, this approach is fairly safe and straight-forward, not a bad idea given that, in about 30,000 words, Smith is attempting to capture a figure who has been the subject of an estimated 16,000 books — a number that is ever on the rise.
On the other hand, it’s a kind of a straight-jacket in terms of requiring Smith to emphasize a particular facet of Lincoln at a particular point in his life. In truth, Lincoln was a politician for much of his life, not just as President. The same is true for him as a self-made man. His being a martyr is problematic inasmuch as it wasn’t part of who Lincoln was but part of his image after his death.
But that’s probably being too picky. For anyone who doesn’t know much about Lincoln, this framework has the benefit of indicating the variety of ways in which he approached his life and work.
Even with that framework, there is a need in a short biography to give a flavor of the personality of the subject, and Smith starts off immediately with a piquant quote and an anecdote from none other than Leo Tolstoy.
The quote is from Lincoln’s quirkily idiosyncratic law partner William Herndon, a man of many prejudices, passions and blind spots. Herndon described Lincoln this way:
His structure was loose and leathery; his body was shrunk and shriveled; he had dark skin, dark hair, and looked woe-struck….His walk was undulatory — catching and pocketing time, weariness, and pain, all up and down his person, and thus preventing them from locating.
This is from the Lincoln biography that Herndon put together with a Springfield associate, Jesse Weik, published in 1889, a quarter century after Lincoln’s assassination. During that time, a process of saint-making had gone on, elevating Lincoln to an almost mystical presence in not only the American past but also in its day-to-day workings.
Herndon’s descriptions of his law partner and friend were an astringent to the sugar-cake image that was developing.
The Tolstoy story was one he told a New York reporter in 1909, more than four decades after Lincoln’s assassination.
He said he’d been touring the Caucusus region on the border of Europe and Asia (at the southeast corner of Russia today) and stayed with a tribal chief in the mountains, far away from civilization. Asked by the chief about the great men of the world, the Russian writer told stories about the Tsars and Napoleon.
But, when he was done, the chief complained that he hadn’t said anything about the world‘s greatest general and greatest ruler, going on to add:
“He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were as strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen….His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America…Tell us about that man.”
So Tolstoy told the chief all he could, and he promised to bring back a photo of Lincoln. When he did so, the chief, reverent before the image, said to the writer:
“Don’t you find, judging from this picture, that his eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow.”
Envisioned as a human being
Smith, I think, is onto something in opening his book with the Herndon quote and the Tolstoy anecdote. They portray a Lincoln who is “woe-struck” and “sad with a secret sorrow.”
That says a lot.
First of all, Lincoln was a young boy when the first images of what we think of today as photography were recorded. By the time he was President, photography, although still an evolving technology, was widely practiced, and many photos of Lincoln were made.
Previously, the faces of major world figures might be known through paintings and drawings, but these were the product of an artist’s vision and skill as well as the requirements of patrons and often the subjects. They were more of an interpretation of the figure than a replica.
Suddenly, though, in Lincoln’s time, people could see how he actually looked in widely duplicated and distributed photos as well as drawings based on those photos. In other words, the average person, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, even in the Caucasus region, could see Lincoln as he was in life.
This unmediated interaction between subject and viewer was new and startling. It led people who looked at Lincoln’s photographed image to be able to envision him as a human being, one they might have seen standing next to them on a city street or a farm road.
A naked Lincoln
Second, Lincoln, especially near the end of his life, was unguarded as a sitter. The best of the images show a man who is not tightening his features to achieve a particular effect. Instead, they show a naked Lincoln — naked in a way that gave the viewer the impression that it was possible to look into the President and see his emotions.
Think of other prominent people and world leaders over the past 150 years — Lenin, Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King. Do the images of any of these or any others convey the emotion that comes through in Lincoln’s face?
The only leader whose photos approach this is Richard Nixon. In his case, there was a distinct and clear feeling communicated by portraits and full-body photos of a man terribly uncomfortable in his own skin.
With Lincoln, it’s the other way. Here’s a man who is comfortable in himself — and in his own sadness.
Smith’s Abraham Lincoln does its job.
It’s not enough. It’s not complete, but, then, no work about Lincoln is complete. Perhaps the best books about Lincoln are those that simply reproduce his photos.
Like Tolstoy’s tribal chief, we all look into Lincoln’s eyes.
Patrick T. Reardon