Words and Stone Summon the Intangible Abe

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009; Page C01

If Abraham Lincoln belonged to a more remote historical era, there would no doubt be conspiracy theorists like those who bedevil Shakespeare scholarship, claiming there was no way Abe Lincoln was really Abe Lincoln. Surely no one from the backwoods could write so well, master the art of politics and persuasion, marshal armies to victory and leave such a permanent imprint on American life.

But in a wonderful and slightly creepy way, Lincoln's physicality is ever with us, in daguerreotypes, life and death masks, bloodstained clothing and myriad talismanic reminders of the 19th-century fascination with the body. And yet, as two very different new exhibitions devoted to Lincoln demonstrate, the physicality of Lincoln is, in many ways, a distraction. Because the real Abraham Lincoln was fashioned from words, and the Lincoln we live with now -- the monumental, oversize, heroic Lincoln -- was forged from the equally intangible stuff of myth.

The two shows -- "With Malice Toward None," a Library of Congress exhibition organized to mark the 16th president's birth bicentennial, and "Designing the Lincoln Memorial: Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon," now open at the National Gallery -- couldn't be more different. The former, which includes almost all the major Lincoln documents, is essential viewing even for people who've already hit the wall with too many Lincoln celebrations. The latter, tucked into a section of hallway at the National Gallery, is a tiny exhibition devoted to two very large objects: the original design model for the Lincoln Memorial by architect Henry Bacon, and the large plaster cast of the seated Lincoln (by sculptor Daniel Chester French) used to model the statue that now dominates the memorial. But the two shows work well together. One is a powerful lesson in Lincoln's self-creation through the mastery of language and rhetoric, while the other offers tangible evidence of his posthumous re-creation as the chief eminence in the American pantheon.

It's refreshing to walk through the Library of Congress exhibition and feel no particular compulsion to get close to Lincoln on a personal level. This is not a exhibition about emotions, or the flesh-and-blood Lincoln, or Lincoln the Family Man. It is an exhibition about words.

That doesn't diminish the visceral power of many of the objects on display. On the page of a copybook from his boyhood are his first extant written words, traced in a careful hand: "Abraham Lincoln, his hand and pen, he will be good but god knows When." It is a silly verse, and quite likely not of his invention. It is also very faintly written, on the lower left corner of a page on which someone has worked through a math problem. As the critic Adam Gopnik writes in a companion volume to the exhibition, "His hand and pen were the axis of his experience," and to see them emerge, ever so delicately on faded paper, is to see the first inklings of a mind taking form, a mind that constantly aspired for moral clarity even as it was steeped in earthy humor.

A copy of Lincoln's first grammar book has similar power, an unprepossessing volume that moves us in part because it explains nothing, just as a scientific tract on the vibration of strings explains nothing about the fugues of Bach.

Next to these sacred objects -- powerful for communion, but limited in teaching power -- are examples of Lincoln's mature rhetoric in the process of being worked through. The exhibition includes what is believed to be the oldest copy of the Gettysburg Address, begun and finished on different types of paper. It also includes the Emancipation Proclamation, the first and second inaugural addresses, the farewell speech delivered before leaving Springfield, Ill., to assume the presidency, and letters to his changing cast of feckless generals.

Documents can be frustrating viewing for anyone who isn't a scholar, but the copy of the first inaugural address is interesting even to laymen. It is printed, with handwritten emendations. The changes reflect, among other things, the recommendations of Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, who had also been a competitor for the Republican nomination. Seward suggested a more conciliatory tone, and offered a paragraph that included the famous "mystic chords" analogy.

"I close," begins Seward's conclusion. Lincoln changed that to, "I am loth to close." It is a small, but powerful alteration, suggesting Lincoln's desire to extend this last, desperate moment of national conciliation.

There are curious surprises and arcana, as well. The "blind memorandum" was written in August 1864, when it appeared possible that Lincoln would lose reelection. It was drafted secretly, folded and then signed by his Cabinet members, without knowledge of its contents. In the end, it wasn't necessary, and his promise to cooperate with the new president-elect was moot.

Among the curiosities is a newspaper, from Vicksburg, Miss., printed on wallpaper, the only paper available during the extremity of the Union siege. It records the news of the day, including many deaths of Vicksburg residents; but its final paragraph was written by Union soldiers, after the city fell. "Two days bring about great changes," they wrote, mockingly. "The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg."

The Library of Congress exhibition is certainly the most impressive in the current round of Lincoln displays mounted so far, at least in Washington. The National Gallery's Lincoln Memorial show is more a respectful nod to the bicentennial event. Bacon's model of the Lincoln Memorial is a massive but crudely made wooden thing, meant to show the profile and proportions more than the details. Whoever wrote the names of the 36 states (at the time of the Civil War) on the frieze didn't even bother to space the letters evenly. "Ohio" strains to take up space, while "Massachusetts" shrinks progressively from the M to the final S.

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