February 12: On this day in 1809 Abraham Lincoln was born, and on this day in 1926 Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, the first installment of his six-volume biography, was published. Sandburg researched, wrote and talked about Lincoln his entire life, and he clearly felt that he had not only an affinity but a mission. They shared Midwestern roots and frontier poverty, an up-by-my-bootstraps attitude, a love of the common man and social reform. Sandburg’s Lincoln was a story of the best of the American Dream: the railsplitter and country lawyer risen to the “elemental and mystical,” the embodiment of those “who breathe with the earth” and who speak with “stubby, homely words that reached out and made plain, quiet people feel that perhaps behind them was a heart that could understand them.” If researching and writing Lincoln took a lifetime, better it was that of “some cornhusker” like Sandburg, who knew the people Lincoln knew: “…don’t he know all us strugglers and wasn’t he a kind of a tough struggler all his life right up to the finish?”
Sandburg’s Lincoln reflected exhaustive research, but the style is poetic and anecdotal — good for a Pulitzer, but not to every scholarly taste. Malcolm Cowley placed it alongside Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn; Edmund Wilson thought it “The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth.” When the eighty-one-year-old Sandburg spoke to a Joint Session of Congress on this day in 1959 (the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth), he stuck to the poetry: “Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is hard as a rock and soft as a drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect….”
Lincoln was himself a sometime-poet. In “My Childhood’s Home I See Again” a reflection upon visiting his birthplace after fifteen years away, he shows the morose streak that most biographers, including Sandburg, note:
…The friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
And half of all are dead.
I hear the loved survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.