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The Sandburg Lincoln

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Abraham Lincoln; The War Years. By Carl Sandburg. Four volumes. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $20.00,

Never yet has a history or biography like Carl Sandburg’s “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years” appeared on land or sea. Strict disciples of Gibbon, Macaulay, Ranke, Mommsen, Hegel, or Marx will scarcely know what to do with it. It does not enclose the commonplace in a stately diction appropriate for Augustan pomp. Its pages do not stand out in the cold formalism which marks the work of those historians who imagine that they are writing history as it actually was. Nor are the personalities, events, passions, follies, blind stumblings, ridiculous performances, contradictions, and stupidities of the four war years smoothed out to make them fit into “the progressive revelation of the idea of God.” The struggle of classes, though more than hinted at, forms no persistent theme era-ployed to explain everything from Lincoln’s jokes to Jefferson Davis’s views in the spring of 1861.

The opening chapters of Mr. Sandburg’s first volume do not present, after the fashion of Macaulay, a picture of American society in 1861—the number, posture, interests, and ideologies of the classes whose spokesmen enact the leading roles. Systematists will not discover anywhere in the four volumes “logical” and self-contained “treatments” of finance, taxation, railways, land policies, tariffs, natural resources, labor, and immigration, or the long struggle to curtail the rights of states in the interest of business enterprise. Followers of Lytton Strachey, Gamaliel Bradford, and Freud will look in vain for psychographs of personalities fashioned after their hearts’ desires.

But this is not to say that Mr. Sandburg writes “without fear and without research.” On the contrary, few if any historians have ever labored harder in preparation for composition. He has traveled widely and searched widely. Great collections of Lincolniana he has scrutinized and used critically. He has examined mountains of newspapers, letters, diaries, pamphlets, stray papers, documents, records, Congressional debates, posters, proclamations, handbills, clippings, pictures, cartoons, and memorabilia, great and small. Work with the paper sources he has supplemented by journeys all over the country, interviews with survivors of the war years and their descendants, and walks over fields and plantations. An indefatigable thoroughness characterizes his preparations and his pages.

In arrangement our author’s text is more like a diary or saga than a “systematic presentation.” He knows that he cannot tell it all, and says frankly “the teller does the best he can and picks what is to him plain, moving, and important— though sometimes what is important may be tough reading, tangled, involved, sometimes gradually taking on interest, even mystery, because of the gaps and discrepancies.” A few chapter titles from the first volume illustrate the flow: “The Use of Patronage,” “December ‘61 Message,” “Opinion Makers,” “Expectations of McClellan,” “Corruption,” “White House Children,” “Donelson—Grant—Shiloh.” Even within chapters there are excursions and diversions which could be put in or left out. Yet when the four volumes are taken together in bulk, it would seem that they form a realistic history of the great conflict and that all parts and passages are so ordered as to give a sense of verisimilitude.

An air of grave thoughtfulness hangs over the lightest words. The searching, brooding spirit of the laborious historian pervades the treatment of every large problem. With this, that, and many things, specialists will doubtless quarrel more or less gently. Mr. Charles Ramsdell, for example, will not be satisfied with the chapter entitled “War Challenge at Sumter.” And yet when I place Mr. Ramsdell’s essay on the subject down by the side of Mr. Sandburg’s chapter, with the best will in the world, I should not like to say on oath which is the truer, that is, which more closely corresponds to the recorded and unrecorded emotions, thoughts, tempers, and actions in the case. But when specialists have finished dissecting, scraping, refining, dissenting, and adding, I suspect that Mr. Sandburg’s work will remain for long years to come a noble monument of American literature.

The scene is viewed mainly from the Northern standpoint. The weight of emphasis is on Northern events and personalities, despite the passages on campaigns and battles. There is a chapter on Jefferson Davis and his government, but orthodox Southerners of the Miss Millie Rutherford school will not like it. They will not see the historical necessity of quoting Andy Johnson’s outburst about “an illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy” in response to Mr. Davis’s reflections on “a common blacksmith or tailor.” (See Marx.) And, although Mr. Sandburg cites freely many adverse Southern judgments on Lincoln, he sees that strange figure in the White House undamaged by the animadversions. After all, just what is the Southern view of the war years or anything else? Moreover, who, North or South, is fitted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Yet Lincoln is not portrayed in these pages as the mighty hero, the great wise man who foresaw things perfectly and moved with unerring wisdom to the great end. He is shown as a poor limited mortal, of many moods, tempers, and distempers, stumbling, blundering along, trying this and trying that, telling jokes, bewildered, disappointed, grieved by his fractious wife, weeping now, laughing then, ordering this, canceling that, trying to smooth ruffled personalities, looking upon mankind, like Marcus Aurelius, as composed of little creatures playing and loving, quarreling and fighting, and making up again, all without much rhyme or reason— Lincoln steadfast in his purpose of saving the Union, and, if possible, reducing the area of slavery or getting rid of it entirely.

There may have been men around Lincoln who were greater (whatever that may mean); many of them at least imagined themselves greater; but I am convinced that Mr. Sandburg’s pages will dispel any illusions on this score. Even some cold Puritans correctly educated at Harvard, with many misgivings, and reluctantly, came to the conclusion that even they could scarcely have managed things better in the long run. It was hard for cultivated persons to endure his jokes, his uncouth manners, his unexpected sallies, and yet they at last learned that there was something marvelous in him—an Antaeus possessing the divining powers of a Proteus. Linguistic purists who could speak of Lincoln’s style as that of a half-educated lawyer finally saw in the rude texture of his sentences a power that none of them could wield. Mr. Sandburg, I feel sure, has given us a fitting sequel to “The Prairie Years,” a truer and more majestic Lincoln than is to be found in the pages of Nicolay and Hay, those apologists to the bourgeois of the Gilded Age.

A week’s reading, which nearly finished my dim eyes, carried me along as in a tumultuous flood, amused, entertained, delighted, toward a conclusion which I had long been maturing. Why is it that the formally educated and polished are so often futile in the presence of vast movements of history? Why is it that so many makers of history on a large scale spring from somewhere near the earth of Antreus and manage to do things on a colossal scale, displaying profound wisdom in the operation? The answer which I had been darkly maturing, Mr. Sandburg has clinched for me. It is that the great philosophies and systems of thought which adepts pile up, teach, and parade, so far as they are valid for life, derive from a few commonsense aphorisms, fables, and maxims evolved by ordinary humanity in its varied efforts to grapple with the stuff of life. Out of the mouths of babes cometh wisdom. Lincoln was the fabulist, the aphorist of the age, strong of will yet supple, facing the storm as a farmer wrestles with the toughness of the soil and the tempests of the seasons, and speaking a language, even in crude jokes, which struck the chords of the primordial that endures at or near the bottom of every civilization and carries on when the top has rotted away.


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