It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down . . . .
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
"Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
(In Springfield, Illinois)"
National heroes are national touchstones. Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington, Abraham Lincoln. They are more than history; they have entered into myth. They have come to figure in our rituals, rhetoric, folklore, song, literature … even our dreams. And how each generation depicts a hero may say more about us than about him.
What an unprepossessing figure he must have been when he first appeared upon the national stage, this elongated stick figure with his high-pitched voice, speaking in the accents of his native Kentucky with a vocabulary drawn from Shakespeare, the King James Bible and his country people.
Just when he was most needed by a nation that was still far from knowing it was one nation, this circuit lawyer, this half-comic, half-tragic apparition materialized out of what was then the American West. This prairie thinker, dreamer and schemer, this rustic storyteller, would turn out to be both the simplest and most sophisticated of American political philosophers.
At what point did this tall, lanky, some would say grotesque, figure first impinge on the national consciousness? In 1858 he was just a worn-out old Whig, a one-term congressman whose opposition to the Slave Power and therefore the Mexican War was supposed to have ended his political career. That was the year he became a national figure by debating the great Stephen A. Douglas in a race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, which he would win in all but the technical sense.
The singular truth Mr. Lincoln asserted that pivotal year was that this government could not survive half-slave, half-free that it was bound to become all one thing or all the other. All men are created equal, and all the excuses for moral neutrality, all the empty hopes that somehow we might forever avoid facing that truth, would prove in vain as Mr. Lincoln foresaw. And he would not let his truth go. To quote a line from "John Brown's Body," the man was Hell on a cold scent. He might maneuver, and he did, in the great struggle of his time. But he would not give up.
The rest is history and, beyond history, myth. In the treasure trove called the Federal Writers Project in Washington, one section is devoted to the recollections of former slaves who were interviewed during the 1930s. Again and again, a similar legend surfaces. Here is how it was told by Fanny Burdock of Valdosta, Georgia, aged 91 at the time the interview was conducted:
"We been picking in the field when my brother he point to the road and then we see Marse Abe coming all dusty and on foot. We run right to the fence and had the oak bucket and the dipper. When he draw up to us, he so tall, black eyes so sad. Didn't say not one word, just looked hard at all us, every one us crying. We give him nice cool water from the dipper. Then he nodded and set off and we just stood there till he get to being dust then nothing. After, didn't our owner or nobody credit it, but me and all my kin, we knowed, I still got the dipper to prove it."
The power of the story lies precisely in that it could not have happened in any realm save that of the spirit. The proof that Abe Lincoln came walking down some dusty road in Georgia, or Alabama, or Louisiana is right there in the dipper, all right as in the Great Dipper, the Drinkin' Gourd that slaves followed to the North Star and freedom. Symbol upon symbol.
In this story is the very definition of myth: a truth greater than fact. Fanny Burdock's tale still moves and holds us. It rings true, exciting an involuntary cry of affirmation: Ye-es!
In his new book, "Land of Lincoln," Andrew Ferguson follows the old Lincoln Heritage Trail through Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana. In keeping with the spirit of the trivialized times, he records the Disneyfication of Lincoln's image. The writer describes a convention of Lincoln impersonators; he writes of "historians" who recast Lincoln in their own ideological image; he gives example after example of the general debasement and exploitation of Lincoln's highly malleable image. And yet, and yet, even among the trivializers there is an almost sacred respect for the enduring Lincoln they exploit.
Nor does the myth shape only Americans. At Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, where Vachel Lindsay once envisioned Lincoln walking at midnight, the author encounters one Henri Dubin, aged survivor of a European concentration camp, who is laying a wreath on Lincoln's grave. In broken English, the old man explains that, at the hardest, the most demeaning, time of his life, he was visited in the camp by President Lincoln, who told him not to lose hope, that all men are created equal.
It is not only Americans who dream of Abraham Lincoln. It is not only Americans who yet dream of freedom.