Wednesday, April 15, 2015

National Poetry Month—Three Illinois Poets and Abraham Lincoln

One of many popular death bed pictures of Lincoln showing an impossible assemblage in the tiny back bedroom where he was laid at an angle in a too-small bed.  In reality Secretary of State Seward, shown prominently front and center with his hand on foot of the bedstead, was grievously injured by another member of the assassination plot and was unable to attend.  Secretary of War Stanton, who quickly took charge of things, soon sent “that hysterical woman”, Mary Todd Lincoln, away.  Son Tad was never allowed at his father’s bedside.  Vice President Andrew Johnson, who survived a botched attempt on his life, was not even called to the room.  Stanton, Robert Todd Lincoln, and three doctors were among those in the room when Lincoln breathed his last.  Stanton may, or may not, have said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Three of my favorite American poets were all from Illinois and were roughly contemporary.  It is more than simple parochialism—Illinoisans do not have the breast beating pride of place of Virginians or Texans or the sometimes snooty Pilgrim pride of Bay Staters.  Indeed, Illinois folk are often embarrassed to admit that they come from a state best known nationally for political corruption and convict governors. No, it’s because the three poets—Sandburg, Lindsay, and Masters—brought fresh ideas and forms to poetry which had long been the seen as the exclusive provenance of the Eastern Elite  and which was choked on convention and the long, inescapable shadow of Romanticism.  They saw things through iconoclastic eyes, wrote in simple, straight-from-the-shoulder verse liberated from ten dollar words and classic allusions.  Each was, in his own way, a Poet of the People.  Yet each had a unique style and particular concerns.  They did not represent a school or movement.  They were simply themselves.
Naturally each was drawn in particularly personal ways to the topic of Lincoln who was not only close to them geographically but was personally known by people close to each of them. 
Carl Sandburg.
Of course no writer is more identified with Abraham Lincoln than Carl Sandburg whose magnificent multi-volume biographies are the most beautiful and moving, if not the most academically useful, of all of the many accounts of his life.  This poem was written in 1925 but not published in Sandburg’s life time.  He—or more likely his editors felt that the blunt description of Lincoln’s death and the preparation of his body for the famous long train ride back to Springfield was still too traumatizing for tender readers of verse.  I find it sobering and powerful and then lifted by a kind of defiance to an unjust world.  Very Sandburg.
Journey and Oath
When Abraham Lincoln received a bullet in the head and was taken to the Peterson house across the street,
He passed on and was swathed in emulsions and prepared for a journey to New York, Niagara, across Ohio, Indiana, back to Illinois-
As he lay looking life-like yet not saying a word,
Lay portentous and silent under a glass cover,
Lay with oracular lips still as a winter leaf,
Lay deaf to the drums of regiments coming and going,
Lay blind to the weaving causes of work or war or peace,
Lay as an inextinguishable symbol of toil, thought, sacrifice-
There was an oath in the heart of this man and that:
By God, I’ll go as a Man;
When my time comes I’ll be ready.
I shall keep the faith that nothing
is impossible with man, that one
or two illusions are good as money.
By God, I’ll be true to Man
As against hog, louse, fox, snake, wolf,
As against these and their counterparts
in the breast of Man.
By God, I’ll fight for Man
As against famine, flood, storm,
As against crop gambling, job gambling,
As against bootlickers on the left hand,
As against bloodsuckers on the right hand,
As against the cannibalism of the exploitation
of man by man,
As against insecurity of the sanctities of human life.
—Carl Sandburg

Vachel Lindsay of Springfield.

Vachel Lindsay was born in Lincoln’s adopted home town of Springfield and raised in a big old house the next block over from the Governor’s mansion.  Unlike some poets who rebel against their roots and try to distance themselves from what they may consider their mundane or plebian roots, Lindsay loved—nay adored—his hometown.  He reveled in its lore, it tree shaded streets, its people great and common, White and Black.  He knew well Lincoln’s haunts on the Square across from the old sandstone Capital, the frame house far simpler than his own, the Depot from which he departed alive for the last time and to which he returned amid pomp in an ornate box.  He knew the old men, bent, broken, bearded, and gray who as lads had marched smartly away to fight in Mr. Lincoln’s War.  And, of course, he knew the grand mausoleum the city and its citizens had built for him, fit for a pharaoh of old the local said, on hill at the cemetery on the edge of town.

It was no wonder that when Lindsay thought of Springfield, he thought of Lincoln —and thought of him as a specter risen from his tomb, especially as he wrote during the fresh carnage of a World War.
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
(In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door. 

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain.   And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again.

—Vachel Lindsay

Edgar Lee Masters in middle age.
The odd man out here is Edgar Lee Masters, the classic freethinker and iconoclast who had once been Clarence Darrow’s law partner and was best known as the author of one of the single best volumes of American poetry ever, The Spoon River Anthology.  You will note that there is no poem appended below this section of the blog post because as far as I know Masters never wrote a poem with Lincoln as the central subject.  The closest he came was in references made by some of the denizens of the Spoon River graveyard who tell their stories in the two volumes he wrote about the mythical downstate community muddled on his own home town. 

This is surprising.  After all Masters was half a generation older then Sandburg and Lindsay.  And he grew up in Petersburg—his Spoon River—in Menard County quite near Lincoln’s New Salem.  His beloved grandfather Squire David Masters served with Lincoln in the Blackhawk War, owned a farm within half a day’s walk from New Salem, and at least once hired the young lawyer when he was just starting out.  His father, Hardin Masters had once been a law partner of Lincoln’s last partner and biographer William Herndon.  He knew many who had known Lincoln and told stories about his country wit.  He was surrounded by the near cult-like worship of Lincoln that thrived in Illinois in the post Civil War years.

Yet in 1931 Masters published the most scathing biography of Lincoln yet written by a Northerner.  Lincoln: The Man was so venomous that it outdid the movement led by un-reconstructed Confederates like Lyon G. Tyler and Mildred Lewis Rutherford in their books of the previous decade to cast Lincoln as the black hearted villain of the Civil War who had loosed unnecessary devastation on the nation and crushed a freedom loving, agrarian society.  Sandburg, who had been friendly with Masters when he first came to Chicago, wrote sadly on the flyleaf of his copy of the book, that it was a “long sustained Copperhead hymn of hate reversing the views of a Masters I knew well 10 and 15 years before he wrote these sickly venomous pages.”  A New York Times reviewer compared the book to the “Indiana Knights of the Golden Circle”—the Ku Klux Klan that had thrived in that state in the ‘20’s.

How could this be?  Masters was, after all, the friend and associate of Darrow and a famous liberal.  He was an admirer of Eugene V. Debs and Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, an admirer of the great liberal Freethinker statesman Robert Ingersoll, a friend of labor, and the ardent opponent of oligarchic monopolists and their Trusts.
It turns out that although personally friendly to young Lincoln, Masters’s Grandfather was, like many of the settlers of Downstate Illinois, an ardent Democrat casting himself as an agrarian republican in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and the enemy of Lincoln’s Whigs and new Republicans as the inheritors of Alexander Hamilton’s elite and moneyed Federalists, the champion of national state power over the states, high tariffs, and the hated monopolistic Bank.  Squire Davis actively campaigned against Lincoln in his race for State Legislature and later as a member of the legislature himself in 1855 did not vote for Lincoln in the election for U. S. Senator.  He was a devoted support of Lincoln’s long time rival Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant.
Masters grew up idolizing Douglas as the clear inheritor of Jefferson’s mantle and a brilliant man with a clear eyed, practical way to save the Union when fanatics North and South were losing their minds.  In his view the heroic Douglas was betrayed by faithless Democrats and overwhelmed with the money and power of northern merchants and industrialists backing Lincoln.  Then after a stinging loss Douglas sacrificed himself trying to save the Union that Lincoln and the Republicans imperiled dying of strain and overwork just months later.  Douglas was in Masters’s eyes, a martyr.
He watched with resentment as Lincoln's cult grew and his lion seemed neglected and dishonored.  In 1922 all of this came out in his novel Children of the Market Place which was narrated by an Englishman who migrates to Illinois in 1833.  He comes to admire Douglas, but was unaware of the scruffy upstart Lincoln until attended one of the Lincoln Douglas Debates at Alton after returning from a trip home to England.  He finds Douglas’s arguments irrefutable and Lincoln’s silly and fanatical.  At first repelled by the bumpkin with the high thin voice, in the course of the argument he begins to appreciate Lincoln’s eloquence.  But for him it is all mere theater and lawyerly histrionics.  Still later the narrator will hear Lincoln at Gettysburg and admit that he has a “great soul” but a foolish mind.  At the end of the novel during the labor turbulence of the 1890s, the old man sits at Douglas’s tomb and weeps for what was lost.
In this view Lincoln was somewhat sympathetic, a misguided man with a good heart and natural gifts but the moral and intellectual inferior of a real giant.
In less than a decade Masters’s view of Lincoln would sour even more.  The intervening years were filled with personal and national disappointments for him.  After the heady triumph of The Spoon River Anthology, each successive volume of his poetry sold fewer copies and the critics grew harsher while rivals like Sandburg and Lindsay prospered.  His novels were failures and his plays closed as fast as they opened.  Not only was he past his glory, he was dismissed as dated and passé.
Meanwhile in his view Lincoln’s Republicans had become the private political machine of the Trusts and malefactors of great wealth.  They had made possible Prohibition which unleashed unheard of violent crime and corruption.  And then the bankers and speculators had driven the country to the Crash and Great Depression for which the common people—farmers and workers paid the price.  And it all, in his mind started with Lincoln and the defeat of the last Jeffersonian knight.  It was a very bitter man who wrote the new supposedly idol toppling biography.
Of course outside of Confederate die-hards and the coterie of  historians and cultural manipulators—think Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind—busy trying to snatch victory from defeat by recasting the narrative of the central event in American history and its aftermath, the book was roundly condemned in the northern and liberal circles that Masters cared for the most.  His reputation, what was left of it, was essentially destroyed.  He lived on until 1950 and wrote several more books, including a biography of Lindsay.  There would even be occasional honors, but he had permanently lost his place in the cultural sun.
For his part, Sandburg’s  Abraham Lincoln: The War Years  published in 1939, a follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize winning two volume biography of the young man Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, did much to undo any damage wrecked by Masters.  Since then hundreds of books have been written about the complex and somewhat mysterious Lincoln who has been called “the most written about public figure since Jesus.”   

Hagiographies have gone out of style, but most writers find much to admire in the public and private man.  In recent years a half dozen major biographies have appeared along with specialized analysis of parts of the Lincoln legacy like Doris Kerns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals which Barack Obama famously studied before naming Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State.  Novelists from Gore Vidal on the left to William Safire on the right to Jerome Charyn in the realm of the soul have plumbed his depths.
Of course the rise of the New Right has been a battle between those who try to paint themselves as the true inheritors of Lincoln and his party with the Southerners who have infiltrated and taken over the Republican Party making it over into the mirror image of the Jim Crow Democrats.  In the north, libertarian neo-Confederates, alleged intellectuals at places like the Heartland Institute have resurrected Masters’s criticism pretty much intact and have launched a new attack on Lincoln’s reputation.
My bet is their puny efforts will be no more successful in the long run.
As for me, I will always love and revisit Spoon River, but when it comes to Lincoln, I will stand with Sandburg and Lindsay.


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