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October 23, 2017

Lincoln and Sandburg

On this day in 1809 Abraham Lincoln was born, and on this day in 1926 Carl Sandburg's two-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years was published. Sandburg researched, wrote and talked about Lincoln his entire life, and he clearly felt that he had not only an affinity but a mission. They shared Midwestern roots and frontier poverty, an up-by-my-bootstraps attitude, a love of the common man and a zeal for social reform. His Lincoln would be a story of the best of the American Dream: the railsplitter and country lawyer risen to the "elemental and mystical," the embodiment of men "who breathe with the earth and take into their lungs and blood some of the hard and dark strength of its mystery," who spoke with "stubby, homely words that reached out and made plain, quiet people feel that perhaps behind them was a heart that could understand them." If researching and writing Lincoln took a lifetime, best that it was the lifetime of "some cornhusker" like Sandburg; and as for the struggle, ". . . don't he know all us strugglers and wasn't he a kind of a tough struggler all his life right up to the finish?"

Many praised the cornhusker and the book, but some criticized the poet. Despite the exhaustive research and the mountain of anecdote, there were no footnotes; worse, said the scholars, there was too much flight of fancy. When we return with Sandburg to the legendary cabin and Lincoln's very earliest days we not only see the packed-dirt floor and hear the leather-hinged door but almost get in the hen-feather bed:
    In May and the blossom-time of 1808, Thomas and Nancy with the baby [the older sister, Sarah] moved from Elizabethtown to the farm of George Brownfield, where Tom did carpenter and farm work. Near their cabin wild crab-apple trees stood thick and flourishing with riots of bloom and odor. And the smell of wild crab-apple blossom, and the low crying of all wild things, came keen that summer to Nancy Hanks. The summer stars that year shook out pain and warning, strange and bittersweet laughters, for Nancy Hanks.
Part Two of Sandburg's biography (Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, four volumes, 1939) won a Pulitzer and maintained the poetry right to the end:
    The ground lay white with apple blossoms this April week. The redbird whistled. Through black branches shone blue sky. Ships put out for port with white sails catching at the wind. Farmers spoke to their horses and turned furrows till sundown on the cornfield. . . . Life went on. Everywhere life went on.
    In the East Room of the White House lay the body of a man, embalmed and prepared for a journey.
Mark Van Doren called it "the greatest historical biography of our generation," and Malcolm Cowley placed it alongside Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn; Edmund Wilson thought that "The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg." When the eighty-one-year-old Sandburg spoke to a Joint Session of Congress on this day in 1959 -- the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth -- he had not lost his theme or his poetry: "Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is hard as a rock and soft as a drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect. . . ."

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