DECEMBER 5, 1939
With these four volumes Carl Sandburg completes the life of Lincoln begun in “The Prairie Years.” Taking the total achievement, there is nothing in historical literature that I know quite comparable with it.
I generally distrust the meeting of perfect writer and perfect theme. There is a blueprint seemliness about such conjunctions that rarely issues in a creative product. The surprising thing about Sandburg writing on Lincoln isthat in this case the results are good: the democrat, the poet, the story-teller, the earthy Midwesterner, the singer of the people has managed somehow to write about another democrat who was also something of a poet in his way and a vast story teller and an earthy Midwesterner and a product of the popular mass. He has sought to depict him on a canvas broader than anything else in American biography: Over 2,000 pages of text, hundreds of illustrations, a hundred pages of index. Even the four-volume Beveridge “Marshall,” expanded by long discussions of cases and decisions, seems dwarfed. Sandburg has brought to his theme a brooding vigor and compassion, a precision of detail, a lyricism, a gusto for people and experience, that would be hard to match among American writers. And the work he has given us is not only a biography of Lincoln and a history of the Civil War. It is itself a battlefield, a sprawling panorama of people and issues and conflicts held together only by Sandburg’s absorption with the central figure.
The historian’s art has been narrowed by the academics to the point of making people believe that there is only one right way of setting down a history. Sandburg’s way is as characteristically his own as Carlyle’s was when he wrote of Cromwell. It is the right way for him because through it he can best express his own basic drives and outlook. He is in these books three things: reporter, poet, lover.
As reporter he sets down what happened with the athletic matter-of-factness that the best journalists put into their craft. But it is a reporter who has a million and a half words at his disposal, and so Sandburg empties his notebooks into his pages. But while nothing is too minute to be put in, there are no superfluous interpretations. The facts are allowed to speak for themselves, yet almost always they are so arranged (with a simplicity that almost conceals the cunning) that they do speak and have something to say. And Sandburg has the reporter’s passion for concreteness. We always learn the exact numbers of everything, the exact look of everyone who enters the story. There is something even a bit frightening about the detail. I think I can understand Sandburg’s intent: the Lincoln literature has grown so vast that a definitive factual work was needed to gather together everything available and valid. The result has one great flaw: the sense one gets of a curious one-dimensional plane, in which the detail gets the same loving attention as the big event, at a considerable sacrifice of perspective. Sandburg is a little like a painter in the primitive style. He is your true democratic historian. In his universe all facts, once they have been validated, are free and equal. Yet he gives his material thereby an unforced character that should cause the biographers who come after him to bless him. Unless I miss my guess, Sandburg’s Lincoln will become an inexhaustible storehouse from which will be drawn a myriad of other Lincolns.
There is also Sandburg the poet. A poet turning to biography and history is likely to flaunt his Muse or, by an inversion, to be ashamed of it and suppress it. Not Sandburg.
The America of Lincoln, the teeming years of suffering and battle and greatness, lie drenched in the moonlight of his lyricism. The Sandburg here is the Sandburg of the Chicago poems, celebrating America and the obscure ways of life, setting his words down with neither elegance nor precision but with a curious random obliqueness that nevertheless manages almost always to reach its object. “Out of the smoke and the stench, out of the music and violet dreams of the war, Lincoln stood perhaps taller than any other of the many great heroes.” Thus Sandburg. What biographer who was not Sandburg’s kind of poet would dare say “music and violet dreams” when describing war, or juxtapose “violet dreams” with “the smoke and the stench”? Yet while there are passages verging on the dithyrambic, particularly at the end of chapters, the whole tone of the book has a quietness and restraint that only one who has mastered his subject and is sure of it could afford.
I have mentioned Sandburg the lover. I know of no other word that will describe the twelve years spent in wooing the material, the care lavished on every detail; or the complete identification with the subject that allows him to analyze Lincoln without once raising his voice in shrillness, and with the effortlessness of what might almost be an introspective reverie. Nor do I know of any other word to describe the deep and shrewd tenderness for common people throughout the book, such as one might expect from the author of “The People, Yes.”
SANDBURG HAS EVIDENTLY taken care not to write the sort of contemporary book that underlines the parallels between yesterday and today. He has given us Lincoln the man, Lincoln the war President, America in the war years. If there are morals to be drawn for today, he has left it to us to draw them.
I am not averse to drawing my own. But one does not need the stimulus of the modern instance to find excitement in the task of human interpretation that every Lincoln biographer has faced. Sandburg’s Lincoln stands out not for its sharpness of thesis but for its very lack of the monistic view. It has a catholicity and an unforced quality that are rare in biography, without succumbing to mere straddling and the colorless. One gets the external man and the internal tensions. There is no attempt to prettify, to play down crudities and failings; neither is there any hint of exploiting them. All the lumbering awkwardness of the man is there, his gropings and fumblings, the way he entered the reception room at the White House and made people feel he was the man in the room who was least at home. But the simplicity of the man is also there— a simplicity which, in Emerson’s phrase about him, was “the perfection of manners.”
Throughout the book we find ourselves on the verge of the symbolic. To quote Emerson again on Lincoln: “He exerts the enormous power of this continent in every hour, in every conversation, in every act.” Sandburg spells that out in detail, while he never lets us lose the sense of the symbolic relation between Lincoln and the American energies. And he manages also to convey Lincoln’s tortured sense that there had been imposed on him a task too great for human to bear. It is here that one strikes the deepest chord in Lincoln. The fatality of it: that he, with his tenderness for everything living, should become the instrument of death for tens of thousands; that he, who always saw the danger of men’s control over men, should have in his hand the destinies of millions; that he, who always shrank from action, should at the peril of his people be galvanized into a train of actions with vast inscrutable consequences. From this standpoint there are two peaks in the book: the chapter on Lincoln’s laughter and religion, and the analysis of how Lincoln had to tell his stories in order to relieve the intolerable tensions within him; and the chapters on the assassination and the country’s mourning. To the latter especially Sandburg brings his most complete gifts, telling the story with the subdued reverence of a passion play, and with a fatality as if the actors were moving in a dream. Here one reaches great writing.
IT IS A bit of luck for us that these volumes should appear just when the question of the conduct of the war by democracies is so much in our minds. One will not find here, as in the Baker volumes on Wilson, much discussion of the now frayed theme of American neutrality. But there is a store of stuff on the question of what happens to a democracy when it goes to war.
Lincoln has gone down in American history as one of the “strong” Presidents, who flouted constitutional restrictions and established a dictatorship in order to win the war. The view is not without its truth. Yet never has a government waged as fierce a war as Lincoln had to wage, and departed so little from the democratic spirit. Lincoln the war President, Lincoln the Commander-in-Chief of the national armies, Lincoln who suspended habeas corpus when it seemed an indispensable measure and who backed up the arrest and expulsion of Vallandigham by General Burnside—that Lincoln never ceased to be also Lincoln the humanist and Lincoln the democrat. He was sore pressed as no American President has ever been. He made mistakes, but as one reads the Sandburg volumes they seem to have been mainly on the side of excessive tolerance rather than lust for power. He had to deal with all the plagues that beset a war government—the militarist mind, the messianic mind, the bureaucratic mind; with war passions and hysteria, with patrioteers, with the lynching spirit, with lethargy, with an opposition so bitter it verged continually on sabotage and treason. He had no genius for organization, little capacity for delegation, little administrative ability as it is generally understood. But with all these limitations he never once lost sight of the main chance. He had a way of cleaving to the heart of a problem that baffled subtler and more expert and sophisticated minds. There were men around him with more powerful wills, men with a greater commitment to humanitarian and radical values. But there was no one who saw better than Lincoln the dilemma and task of a democracy at war; how to win the war with the minimum sacrifice of traditional liberties and democratic values.
In a world in which the leaders of war democracies are the Daladiers and Chamberlains and Churchills, we have reason to be proud of Lincoln. We have reason to be proud that with every opportunity for setting up a dictatorship, he did not succumb; with every opportunity for betraying democratic values under the guise of war necessity, he did not succumb. Long before the end of the war he was giving his best thought to the problem of a humane peace and a constructive plan for rebuilding the defeated states. I have no intention of saying that Lincoln was wholly consistent in the strength of his humanism. There were forces in American life that proved too powerful for him, for the cause of the North was tied up with the cause of a predatory capitalism, and the Reconstruction that followed Lincoln’s death was almost arid of either democratic or human values. Yet there was never a time when it was more important for us than now to know the capacity of a democracy to turn up greatness of Lincoln’s sort from its humblest sons—a greatness that will survive the grime and savagery of war.
If I read my own Lincoln somewhat into Sandburg’s pages, there is room for others as well. He has given the coming generations the material out of which to construct a myriad of Lincoln images. All the material is there—from the day that Lincoln boarded the train at Springfield to ride to his inauguration, down to the day when his coffin was placed in a flower-heaped vault in the Springfield he had left. What four years were crowded between those two boundaries! The hordes of people, office-seekers, hand-shakers; the jokes and stories, deep, illimitable stories, lighting up what was comic and contradictory in life; the grim wild humor of a President-elect conferring with his advisers as to how he might travel through Baltimore on his way to his inauguration without being lynched; the Cabinet officers, with their intrigues and jealousies; the vast decisions and petty details; the generals, and the heartbreaking search for military leadership that would be confident and firm and aggressive; the violent attacks in Congress and the press; the drama of emancipation, and the harrowing uncertainty of its consequences; Father Abraham; the see-sawing of war’s fortunes; the draft riots, the desertions, the Copperheads; the unending delegations of politicians and ministers and zealots and cranks; Jay Cooke and the financing of the war; the profiteering and poverty, at one extreme costly furs bought with war profits, at the other the starving families of soldiers; the European diplomats and statesmen puzzled by this ungainly fellow who told crude stories; the faith of the masses, growing and deepening every year; the rows of hospital cots, the faces pleading and rebuking; the dream of sudden death and the deep inner conviction that it would come; the unerring course of Booth’s bullet; Whitman’s threnody; the grief of the people. And then the legend.