The heroic everyman

In April 1865, soon after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Ralph Waldo Emerson eulogized the recently slain president as "thoroughly American -- a quite native, aboriginal man, as an acorn from an oak, no aping of foreigners, no frivolous accomplishments." Seventeen years later, Walt Whitman lauded Lincoln as the American among Americans, "his times, his death -- great as any, any age -- belong altogether to our own."

Emerson and Whitman join more than 100 other writers in Harold Holzer's "The Lincoln Anthology," one of the deluge of books cashing in on the Great Emancipator's 200th birthday Thursday. Most of the writers agree with Holzer that Lincoln, while complex and self-contradictory, "has remained nothing less than the ideal American hero: the self-made Everyman." He considers Lincoln's "legacy of extraordinary resonance and universality."

A leading Lincoln scholar, Holzer arranges the excerpts chronologically, from William Cullen Bryant's "Introduction of Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union" (1860), to E.L. Doctorow's novel "The March" (2005). The authors include the famous and the obscure -- newspapermen, humorists, biographers, essayists, novelists, memoirists, poets, playwrights, historians, clergymen and statesmen.

In a brief epilogue, Holzer features Barack Obama, whose identification with Lincoln brings the story up to February 2007. Announcing his presidential candidacy in Illinois, Obama invoked Lincoln's memory, reminding his audience that "the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible."

Holzer observes correctly that one cannot write about Lincoln without considering the Railsplitter's "seemingly incongruous paradoxes."

He was a sober, melancholy man who nevertheless relished corny humor and bawdy stories. As commander-in-chief, Lincoln committed to a devastating war yet regularly pardoned condemned Union and Confederate soldiers. Though a believer in white supremacy and a devotee of colonizing free blacks overseas, Lincoln nonetheless emancipated millions of slaves and, years before passage of the 15th Amendment, endorsed limited black suffrage. These contradictions and others, according to Holzer, "lead in the end to an inescapable sense of mystery."

The chronological structure of "The Lincoln Anthology" allows readers to follow the evolution of the Lincoln legend punctuated by hyperbole and shrouded in mythology. The hagiography of Lincoln's friends and associates seems to have had no bounds.

Extolling the recently martyred president in 1865, for example, pro-Republican journalist Noah Brooks called "'Honest Old Abe' … a synonym for all that is just and honest in man." The following year, William H. Herndon, Lincoln's former law partner, shocked audiences when he lectured that Ann Rutledge's death in 1835 deprived Lincoln of his only true love, leaving him despondent and predisposing him to a loveless marriage to Mary Todd.

In 1890 Lincoln's private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay published their filiopietistic 10-volume "Abraham Lincoln: A History," characterizing Lincoln as "a wise statesman, and an increasingly canny executive and commander-in-chief, successfully meeting a series of unprecedented challenges."

By the 20th century, with few of Lincoln's contemporaries alive, the crafting of the Lincoln legend fell to those with no firsthand knowledge of him and little interest in the Civil War era.

In 1900, for example, in "The Life of Abraham Lincoln" reformer Ida M. Tarbell identified the Great Emancipator's frontier origins as the source of his humor, persuasiveness, and magnanimous character. In his Feb. 12, 1909, centenary address at Lincoln's birthplace in Hodgenville, Ky., Theodore Roosevelt praised Lincoln's joining of lofty ideals and common sense, toughness and love for his enemies, his "disinterestedness in battling for the good of others." Roosevelt, Holzer observes, "enlisted Lincoln's memory in the cause of pragmatic progressivism and a reinvigorated and dynamic presidency."

Sketching Lincoln's image in the rest of the 20th century, Holzer identifies one writer, Carl Sandburg, and a school of historical novelists led by Gore Vidal, as especially influential. The two writers, however, held diametrically opposite interpretations of Lincoln.

Sandburg's enormously popular six-volume "Abraham Lincoln" (1926-1939) championed Lincoln as the great American common man. Writing with an idealized and saccharine tone, Sandburg considered the president "a faithful son of the democratic frontier whose example would always remind Americans of their duty to confront tyranny and injustice."

Outraged by what he judged Sandburg's "romantic and sentimental rubbish," in 1962 literary critic Edmund Wilson subjected Lincoln's texts to psychological analysis. He found Lincoln "more a tyrant than an American saint." Following Wilson's lead, in his bestselling "Lincoln" (1984) Vidal portrayed Lincoln "driven by ambition to embrace despotism in order to heroically save the Union." Vidal's book launched what Holzer terms "the new golden age of Lincoln fiction," including Richard Slotkin's "Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln" (2000) and Adam Braver's "Mr. Lincoln's Wars" (2003).

Though Holzer credits Wilson with jump-starting "the so-called anti-Lincoln tradition," "The Lincoln Anthology" includes important earlier criticism of Lincoln by leading African-Americans. In 1876, for example, Frederick Douglass, who during the Civil War faulted the president for moving too slowly in emancipating and arming blacks, reminded a Washington audience that Lincoln had been "pre-eminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men," and that blacks were "at best only his step-children."

"No speech on Lincoln and race," Holzer writes, "has been as provocative, proved as influential, or arguably has been as insightful."

In 1922 Robert R. Moton, Booker T. Washington's successor at Tuskegee Institute, drafted a speech on behalf of blacks for the dedication of Washington's Lincoln Memorial, warning that the memorial would remain "but a hollow mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy, unless we together can make real" the principles for which Lincoln died. Though the Memorial Commission ultimately forced Moton to excise his sharp words, his speech nevertheless ended with a cry for "equal justice and equal opportunity for all."

Unfortunately, while "The Lincoln Anthology" is a welcome compilation, Holzer insufficiently contextualizes the texts over time and circumstance. For nearly 150 years, Americans have appropriated and shaped Lincoln's image to their needs. The malleable Lincoln legend thus says as much about ourselves as it does about the martyred 16th president.