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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln

Out of the smoke and stench, out of the music and violent dreams of the war, Lincoln stood perhaps taller than any other of the many great heroes. This was in the minds of many. None threw a longer shadow than he. And to him the great hero was The People. He could not say too often that he was merely their instrument.

--Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years

I recently read an abridged version of Carl Sandburg's famous work, Abraham Lincoln, and have concluded it is one of the best books I have read in the last ten years. Sandburg does a masterful job of capturing the enigmatic Lincoln: his melancholic temperament, his physical awkwardness, his loneliness, his shrewdness, his belief in the sentiments of the American people. One wonders how this seemingly incapable man arose from such humble origins to become president and hold the country together during the Civil War.

One of the most engaging parts of the books is Sandburg's account of the events surrounding Lincoln's assassination. Sandburg relates several haunting vignettes in which Lincoln seemingly predicted his own death the day he died. His description of Lincoln's last hours as he lay dying in bed is dark and palpable: "For Abraham Lincoln it was lights out, good night, farewell and a long farewell to the good earth and its trees, it's enjoyable companions, and the Union of States and the world Family of Man he had loved."

Sandburg's book is sometimes criticized for being "non-historical." He shuns footnotes, fails to cite his sources, and often indulges in anecdotal evidence which seems more like legend and myth than fact. It has been described as a hybrid work, a blend of both history and poetry; the quotes above give you a sense. In my opinion, though, the book is more enjoyable and more revealing precisely because it was not written by an orthodox historian, but by a poet, folklorist, and novelist. It is beautifully written. As for the lore written as history...there is truth even in myth, as Tolkien might say.