Thursday, April 7, 2011

‘Like a hoosier Michael Angelo’

I’VE GAZED up at Abe Lincoln’s marble magnificence at his famous memorial many times. I’ve studied paintings and photographs of his craggy face many times more. But to experience his physicality, there’s no substitute for being there, in his presence, when Mr. Lincoln walked the streets of Washington DC. Fortunately, poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman was there in our stead.

He wrote:
I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. He always has a company of twenty-five or thirty cavalry, with sabers drawn and held upright over their shoulders. They say this guard was against his personal wish, but he lets his counselors have their way. The party makes no great show in uniform or horses. Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, etc., as the commonest man.

The sabers and accoutrements clank and the entirely unornamental cortège as it trots toward Lafayette Square arouse no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes. I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression.

Earlier in the summer I occasionally saw the President and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in a barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city . . . They passed me once very close, and I saw the President fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happened to be directed steadily in my eye. He bowed and smiled, but far below his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect, expression of this man's face. There is something else there.
Later, Walt Whitman described Lincoln in a letter to friends: “I think well of the President. He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.”

"There is something else there," Whitman wrote hauntingly of Lincoln. Though Whitman could not articulate it, his poet’s eye instinctively sensed Lincoln specialness. There is no substitute for being there, but we do have the benefit of hindsight. That “something else” was Lincoln’s unexpected but singular greatness, one forged by the trial of war and burdened with the “unfinished work” of a nation he both preserved and emancipated. To me, the “deep latent sadness” in his eyes reflected a man unavoidably aware of his fate as a conduit for America’s difficult leap forward.

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