It was a ten-hour drive from Pittsburgh to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, our destination. We cruised along in a rented minivan, our kids’ iPods and the occasional parental CD propelling us through miles of corn. Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Decatur: finally Illinois’s sturdy capital came into view, flat as a feather, crowned with a dome. After a late dinner, a swim at the hotel, and a little sleep, we were ready for Lincoln.“This is the living work of pain, of grief, of love, leaping toward us as we move, step by step, below ground.”
More Than the Museum: Abraham Lincoln’s PresenceNot quite, actually. Not by a long shot, as a matter of fact. Lincoln’s presence soars way above the capitol’s magnificent dome; it isn’t hard to feel. And it was feeling, above all, that saturated our stay, feelings arising from absorbing, hour by hour, the brute, demanding historical facts of this particular past, when our nation was battered by crisis and Lincoln’s party was young.
I’ve spent time in museums. I’ve never felt in any of them what I felt at Lincoln’s museum: so singular a sense of tragedy, so broad a sense of humanity. His life seemed somehow to stand in for ours—Lincoln aspiring, Lincoln doubting, Lincoln jesting, Lincoln grieving, ambition and purpose and failure and pain all ending with the bitter sound of a gun, a report echoing yet through our collective soul.“If he was a wit, his wit bore witness of humanity’s precarious position in the cosmos—certainly of his own.”Like most museums, this one is tempted by cuteness, the impulse to prettify, to turn reality into something we don as a disguise—the aesthetic price of our all-consuming way, perhaps. Yet to the curators’ credit, Lincoln’s more rough and splintery world holds its own, testament of a time when cuteness was the property only of the effete few, the “refined,” to whom Lincoln was a perennial embarrassment. He wore their clothes, but not very well, as critics, both friendly and not, eagerly exclaimed.
One of the museum’s most memorable rooms, the “Whispering Gallery,” is set up as a dark and ghoulish fun house, featuring in distorted frames a collection of headlines, caricatures, and quotations that Lincoln’s presence evoked. Lincoln, declared a Wilmington, North Carolina newspaper in 1861, is “vain, weak, sterile, hypocritical, without manners,” one who “swears more than Uncle Toby” and is, in sum, contemptible “in every particular, morally and mentally.” Cartoonists had their fun with Lincoln, it becomes clear, and political purposes were served. But Lincoln’s death served a political purpose, too. By then the fun was long gone for all parties involved in this high risk, high-stakes internecine affair.
Lincoln’s WitIn one of his guises Lincoln comes down to us as himself a fun guy—a backwoods jokester, a wry and witty storyteller. But of all his words the museum preserves, what brought me most to attention was the sharply etched force of his brief, reverent farewell address at Springfield in February of 1861, when he was moving east to assume the presidency. “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” His premonition of his end was equal to his assessment of his duty, both the precise opposite of what most mortals would choose. If he was a wit, his wit bore witness of humanity’s precarious position in the cosmos—certainly of his own.