ABRAHAM LINCOLN, the most complex of American presidents, seems a natural target for psychobiographers but has largely escaped their attentions. That was bound to change, of course, when Clio, the muse of history, developed her present torrid romance with Narcissus, the emblematic golden youth of subjectivism: ever distracted from his surroundings by the entrancing image of himself in the mirroring pool.
In these two books the personality and family relations of the 16th president come under the scrutiny of young historians who have bitten and chewed, if not entirely swallowed or digested, their, their Freud and Erikson. They are probably the first of many such.
Dwight G. Anderson's The Quest for Immortality acknowledges debts, for example, to Erik Erikson's study of the young Luther. But oddly, Anderson's book is less psycho -history than metahistory; a highly theoretical meditation on Lincoln's place in th puritanapocalyptic tradition in American history.
In this intricately argued book, Lincoln appears as a kind of messianic revolutionary, whose conscious (or was it unconscious?) design it was to throw over the constitutional order of 1789 and re-establish the primacy of the egalitarian Declaration of Independence as the basic charter of American destiny.
Lincoln, according to Anderson, was a religious skeptic who finally embraced "a theory of atonement by which the suffering and sacrifice [of the Civil War]. . .could be linked to. . .salvation and redemption. . .the basis of a political religion in which he was both founder and leading exemplary figure, both Paul and Christ in one."
Along the way, Anderson's argument gets tied in with the claim that the seminal book in the development of Lincoln's political thought was Parson Weems' semimythological Life of Washington : the source of an idea of the "father figure" whose advice and counsel ultimately had to be defied.
Unfortunately, the ratio of fact and analysis to speculation in Anderson's book is about one part in five at most. Anderson has some interesting and provocative ideas -for instance, that "Lincoln's quest for immortality was rooted in a profound anxiety about death which had both personal and political dimensions." But his book suffers from the usual flaw of essays in meta-history. Any argument so expansive is vulnerable to all sorts of messy exceptions and qualifications, so that it finally comes to seem a bit arbitrary.
It is vital to Anderson's thesis, for instance, that Lincoln's Lyceum Speech of January 1838 occupy a critical place in his thought, a more critical place than most historians would concede to it. It was very much a young man's oration (Lincoln was 28 at the time), highly rhetorical and far from the chastened style of his maturity.
Anderson also contends that Lincoln's "spot" resolutions and speeches opposing the Mexican War (during his one congressional term in 184748) proclaimed the growing messianic impulse: "He hoped to so distinguish himself on a national level as a virtous leader that all other considerations would pale by comparison." But as other Lincoln scholars have shown, Lincoln's antiwar views were not out of line with Whig opinion in his Ilinois constituency.
Charles Strozier, the author of the other "quest" book under review, argues more plausibly that whatever seemed extravagant or daring in Lincoln's opposition to Polk's Mexican adventure reflected inexperience and a failure to gauge appropriate parliamentary tactics, not a soaring and singular vision.
And a final example: The dormant period that followed Lincoln's return from Congress (1850-54) is pricture by Anderson as a period of depressed withdrawal and brooding, but by Strozier (and others) as a period when Lincoln was absorbed in his prosperous law practice and out on the trial circuit for up to 20 weeks a year.
In fact, Strozier's treatment of Lincoln, while also "psychobiographical" to a degree, shows a firmer command of the tangled political literature without which Lincoln's emerging purposes and politics, messianic or not, can hardly be understood. Of course, Strozler is also deeply interested in Lincoln's mysterious moodiness and in his complicated relationships with his wife, his children, his stepmother, his father and his friends, and has interesting speculations about them all. But he does not ignore, as Anderson too often does, the grainy texture of events. Despite occasional and brief lapses into jargon ("conflicted" seems his favorite word), Strozier's Lincoln is not a messiah but the familiar Whig frontier lawyer who, after a long groping for his destiny, dicovers it in the national cirsis of 1854-59.
According to Strozier--and I think he is right about this--Lincoln truly believed that the American constitutional order was under a sinister conspiratorial threat. Indeed, Strozier says, he took a "paranoid" view of its roots and origins. To Lincoln, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (which pened to slave-holding new territories north of the original Missouri Compromise line), the election in 1856 of the dithering Buchanan with his crypto-Southern sympathies, and the Dred Scott decision of the following year (which demoted even free blacks to the status of non-citizens and pronounced that Congress was powerless to contain the vigorous spread of slavery) seemed to flow from a coordinated plot to extend the slaveocracy indefinitely.
What is interesting is not the undoubted "paranoia" of this view (there was no such organized plot as Lincoln charged and imagined). It is that Lincoln's reaction casts him in quite an opposite role from the messianic and revolutionary one proposed by Anderson: that is, as a constitutional moderate. (Lincoln even swallowed, reluctantly, the legitimacy of fugitive slave laws and opposed abolitionism.) He saw himself as protecting constitutional regularity from a fanatical revolutionary aggression, and that by an inspiration more practial than messianic.
Thus, of these two competing views of Lincoln, Strozier's is not only more traditonal but much the more plausible, more carefully grounded in the whole body of Lincoln's speeches and activities.
On the principle that historical speculations should no more be needlessly multiplied than philosphocal entities, one wuld suppose that a biographer would be content simply to write what the evidence clearly shows. But Strozier cannot resist the obligatory psychoanalytic speculation about father figures (though he says Lincoln's was not Washington but Henry Clay!), guilt and internal psychic conflict. Even so we have in Strozier an orthodox biographer struggling successfully, on the whole, to break through the thin veneer of theorizing.
In the end, Strozier admits, Lincoln's transcendent greatness baffles the rigid categories of psychoanalytic theory. "Humor, empathy, creativeness and wisdom," he writes, "become the vehicles for his therapeutic transcendence of the core conflicts within his personality." That is a convoluted way of saying that greatness in politics (as in music, or letters, or any great nterprise) is ultimately an enigma not to be subsumed or penetrated by reductivitst jargons and theories.
In the end, Clio chases Narcissus from her bedchamber. And, as always, it is good riddance.