"A narrow Fellow in the Grass
You may have met Him-did you not
His notice sudden is-
But I never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone-"
- Emily Dickinson
Today, Lincoln is a figure of fun, with his top-hat. Sometime in 1965, the top hat acquired more of an association with charlatans, than with old Abe.
In mid-century America you could not go broke writing books about Lincoln, and Edmund Wilson, the mid-century critic, said that he could not think of Lincoln without emotion. Today, the most popular book about Abe deconstructs him as a racist who wanted to send the slaves back to Africa.
I'm afraid, however, that at least one of Lincoln's crimes was his humble background. In a country where mentioning social origins was, in Lincoln's time and ours, impolite, the fact that it is not mentioned makes poor origins on balance a defect in the man.
Didn't Daisy say, "rich girls don't marry poor boys, Jay Gatsby!"?
John Ford usually made Westerns, but in the 1830s, Illinois was part of the frontier. The Oxford History of the American West places the Western frontier somewhere near Amherst, Massachusetts in 1680 around the time of King Phillip's war. Today, the West is a few feet of beach at Half Moon Bay, having failed to ingest Hanoi at the other edge of the big water. There is much of the Western in this film, although the showdown takes place in a court of law.
Certain "feminist" critics have renarrated the plot line of this film, wherein Lincoln establishes "the patriarchal order of the frontier."
The best of these feminist critics leave it, at that. At that point they have done us all a service, having renarrated, accurately. But some prose on to invite us to speculate that this is a bad thing.
The Oxford history narrates the West in a like fashion, showing how in fact the individual condottieres of the Wild West were members of paramilitary groups who were fighting the Civil War well into the 1880s, establishing a Republican patriarchal order as against Democrats, Ku Kluxers, Mexicans and other scalawags.
The question raised by John Ford's film is whether Lincoln's victory is, as some "feminists" might claim, a Bad Thing. For, of course, the Illinois frontier circa 1830 was no feminist paradise. It was instead dominated, in the absence of a defined patriarchy, by scalawags, slave-runners, and, I fear, Democrats.
Indeed, Lincoln's early success, as seen in the film and in histories of his early life, was based on the fact that Lincoln was part of this system, and, prior to the death of Anne Rutledge, a bit of a scalawag, himself. The film portrays a change in Lincoln's life, the sort of change only truly great men and women can endure; for we may owe Lincoln's depression over the death of Anne Rutledge for the strong words "with malice towards none, with charity towards all."
Today, of course, depressed people are considered first and foremost to be at-risk for not being able to pay their bills and are given various drugs. This neatly short-circuits one solution to depression, and that is to discover a new life at the bottom of whatever hole one is in.
Ford's Lincoln in the courtroom is seen by the perceptive viewer to be a lanky angel of righteousness. The scene where he emerges to the light and the cheers of the crowd is shown by Ford to be an acceptance of his destiny.
This we know is myth. Good myth.
But it is the final scene, where Lincoln has been transformed to the Lincoln at his Memorial, that returns me to the modern-day historian, who sez that Lincoln was a racist. This is because it is of course that my country's biggest problem then and now was race, and in the right light (let's say a dark and rainy, post-September 11 Washington afternoon) Lincoln looks like a man of color, like Booker T. or Phillip Randolph.
More precisely, in the suffering contours of the face as filmed by Ford, one sees the best destiny of my country, which is to forget "race." The shadows of the crags as drawn by suffering that we know must have been genuine (for it was Lincoln who had to write that letter, to that mother, who lost those five boys) rather overwhelm skin tone. Old men, white and black, get children, and wrinkles which cast like shadows, of sorrow.
We can compare say Trent Lott or indeed any Senator whose dress and bearing constitute boundaries, which announce "whatever else I am, by God, be I twice forsworn in divorce, I am, and I remain a WHITE man, and if you (all) follow me you shall also be white men again, like yore daddy was."
Lincoln and a few other American politicians of national repute, like "Fighting Bob" LaFollette of Wisconsin, John Peter Altgeld, Adlai Stevenson, Upton Sinclair, Martin Luther King, Malcolm, JFK, Sen. McCain, said instead, or wanted to get around to saying instead "whatever else I am in the sight of God I am and I remain a FREE man."
Or, more precisely, our image of JFK, our image of Dr. King, and perhaps their own self-image, said this thing. Ford's image of Lincoln says like an old folk-song, "paint me an angel, that flies from Montgomery, make me a poster from an old rodeo." Pictures of Clinton, or Elvis, or Wayne Newton are limned on black velvet "maybe down in Mexico, or a picture upon somebody's shelf", in Dylan's words, because Big Trent needs a reminder of some Jack of Hearts, some inside straight, to keep him somewhat honest.
Hell, the man so limned needs hisself an image of what he might have been in order to act right on a daily basis, and perhaps draw an inside straight.
I too, cannot think of Lincoln without great emotion.