On “Lincoln” and Lincoln

“Lincoln” the movie raises key questions: Who was our sixteenth president, after all? And how best to represent him?

“Lincoln” has more talking than action, and some audience members have admitted slipping off into dreamland until roused by heated rhetoric or, perhaps, some swelling music.

Complaints about historical inaccuracies and controversies swirling around reception of the film—heightened by charges of elitism, even racism, given the paucity of slaves and free blacks—seem to push Lincoln himself once more into the background. Daniel Day-Lewis brings him forward, of course, but with a familiar air of mystery.

Scriptwriter Tony Kushner, a brave radical and with Angels in America arguably the finest American playwright since Arthur Miller, has stressed that director Steven Spielberg chose a relatively small selection of the vast screenplay draft that the writer had prepared. (Many of us would be happy to see the full eight-hour version, although not in one sitting.) Historian Eric Foner, whose Pulitzer-winning “The Fiery Trial” more keenly than Doris Goodwin Kearns’ biography set the context for Lincoln’s strategic and tactical moves, has pointed similarly to the work’s limitations.

“Emancipation—like all far-reaching political change—resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom,” he wrote. And he said the film exaggerates the importance of the Thirteenth Amendment in ending slavery. “Even as the House debated, Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

This raises the question of whether the Congressional debate over the 13th Amendment was the best focus for a film entitled “Lincoln.” Was there a different moment in the war years that would have made a truer, more decisively democratic film? And what about Lincoln’s early years?

An acute graphic novel appearing a few months ago, based closely on evidence, was aptly titled “The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln.” Author-artist Noah Van Sciver captured the Illinois days of the 1830s when the Kentucky-born lawyer worked hard at making a living with buggy trips through miserable weather, sharing beds with colleagues at beaten-up rooming houses, wooing Mary Todd erratically and it would seem indifferently, and most especially facing the prospect of a serious mental breakdown. He was a candidate for anti-depressants not yet invented, and perhaps psychoanalysis as well.

The Lincoln who emerged from this troubled time into a spokesman at once for Free Soil states and the Illinois Central Railroad seems like a world-beater at the cusp of his moment in history. But if there is something lasting in “Lincoln,” it may be the sense that the president had his own personal agonies on top of his worries about the future of the nation and his concern for African Americans.

Day-Lewis seems to have encompassed, better at least than any previous television or film treatment, the melancholiac who took upon himself the weight of history, including the enslavement that made rapid economic growth of the nation possible but carried with it sin. How should sin, in Lincoln’s own view, be overcome, a nation redeemed, without the immense suffering that the war brought to nearly every corner of the society? Even victory would be tragic.

The real precursor to “Lincoln” is not the ever-earnest Henry Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939) let alone Walter Huston in “Abraham Lincoln” (1930).

It would rightly be the vast, six-volume biography by Carl Sandburg, first published in the 1930s, trimmed down to a popular edition of a mere three volumes, and made into one of television’s first mini-series (actually a series of specials, starring Hal Holbrook). Fellow native Illinoisan, Sandburg had been a cub reporter for the socialistic Milwaukee Leader, rising newspaperman covering the 1919 Chicago race riots with a memorable pamphlet, guitar-strumming folksinger and, of course, renowned poet.

In the original volumes, many pages passed without an actual mention of the lead character because Sandburg viewed the man as the nation and the nation as the man. Shorter and longer versions of Sandburg’s totemic work could be found in millions of American households, not far from Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, i.e., twentieth-century literary classics that now seem so far away but generations ago, proved the owner to be an educated citizen.

The truest literary counterpart, no grand bestseller but an undoubted classic, would be “John Brown’s Body,” the book-length poem by Steven Vincent Benet, first published in 1927. Deeply naturalist, with prostitutes and plain soldiers showing up as narrators quite as often as generals and politicians, it moved Lincoln into and out of the spotlight. Benet nevertheless captures Lincoln’s inner dilemmas, if not his sense of humor, with piercing accuracy:

“They come to me and talk about God’s will

In righteous deputations and platoons,

Day after day, laymen and ministers,

They write me Prayers From Twenty Million Souls

Defining me God’s will and Horace Greeley’s.

God’s will is General This and Senator That,

It is the will of the Chicago churches,

It is this man’s and his worst enemy’s

But all of them are sure they know God’s will,

I am the only man who does not know it.”

This verse points to an important piece that was missing in “Lincoln.” His parents broke from a pro-slavery church when he was a child. Growing into a popular town boy and then successful lawyer, he could not bring himself to commit to any congregation, perhaps because no specific theology made good sense. He created his own theology instead. And if it was less than happy, it matched the world, and specifically the nation, in front of him.