I confess to an abiding love of Abraham Lincoln. As man who’s grown up without a father, I’m free to pick the models I want. I make no apologies for my choice, except to say that I’ve spent a considerable time reading, thinking, and imagining about Lincoln. So I might mention him here from time to time in the context of fatherhood. There is much to recommend about him in such a context. It’s necessary to do some digging, though, to get past the standard schoolboy impressions–the funny beard, the six-mile walk to return some pennies, and so on. In my case, I carried those impressions with me well into mid-life, which is to say that as a nominative adult, I still looked at Lincoln through the eyes of a child.
The first grown-up book I read about Lincoln was Carl Sandburg’s magisterial, two-volume study of Lincoln’s early life, The Prairie Years. Sandburg’s history has been indicted on many offences, but was widely praised in its day, still widely read when I was young. Its evocative title has always summoned for me pictures of cloudless blue skies and Conestoga wagons rolling across vast, grassy landscapes. I even like spelling the word prairie, out of which you can make the words air, rare, airie, and, almost, prayer.
You can read about Lincoln the depressive, Lincoln the war-monger, Lincoln the racist, Lincoln the homosexual, Lincoln the redeemer, etc. He’s large. He contains multitudes. My penchant is for Lincoln as a man. Sandburg is so superb a conjurer in that regard that midway through the first volume of The Prairie Years Lincoln began looming before me large and vivid as a thunderhead. As I got in deeper, Sandburg led me to other writers. Want a brief sketch of what Lincoln was like in person? Try this:
… he was plain, funny, kind, withdrawn. He could talk up a storm or be as quiet as the prairie on a still night. He sounded like a backwoodsman, even in high hat. Up close, it was impossible to fear him. His heart broke over fallen birds and fallen men. He could get fired up or fed up. He was absentminded. He was slow to act. Straining, he grew out of his prejudices. He wrote like a poet. He laughed like a hyena. He cried real tears. Everything about him was real. (Kunhardt)
A steady diet of things like that does something to you. Or read Lincoln’s own words–you feel as if he’s talking just to you. Sometimes it seems to me as if I almost know him, and that knowledge has made the world a friendlier place. I’ve read a lot of books about being a man, finding your purpose, and so on. But very few have been as rewarding as ten minutes with Lincoln. Here is one of my favorite Lincoln stories. I hope it’s not apocryphal. If anyone has seen this in print, I’d be grateful for the reference:
A man once came to Lincoln’s office at the White House and offered the President a bribe. Lincoln refused. The man offered more money. Another refusal. The man offered once again, this time a very large sum, and Lincoln kicked him out of his office. Lincoln’s secretary, an unabashed admirer, later asked him why he had thrown the man out when he did.
“He’d nearly reached my price,” said the president.
You can almost hear the exasperated twang in Lincoln’s voice. His answer says a great deal about slyness, about self-knowledge and self-deprecation, about humor, about moral compass, about acknowledging limits. As I say, much to recommend here in the context of fatherhood.