Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Uncle Abe


Nathaniel Hawthorne meets Abraham Lincoln--an essay censored by The Atlantic, in July 1862--Hawthorne wrote the bogus editorial notes as well:

""By and by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passage-way, and in lounged a tall, loose-jointed figure, of an exaggerated Yankee port and demeanor, whom (as being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe.

Unquestionably, Western man though he be, and Kentuckian by birth, President Lincoln is the essential representative of all Yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities. It is the strangest and yet the fittest thing in the jumble of human vicissitudes, that he, out of so many millions, unlooked for, unselected by any intelligible process that could be based upon his genuine qualities, unknown to those who chose him, and unsuspected of what endowments may adapt him for his tremendous responsibility, should have found the way open for him to fling his lank personality into the chair of state,--where, I presume, it was his first impulse to throw his legs on the council-table, and tell the Cabinet Ministers a story. There is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement, and yet it seemed as if I had been in the habit of seeing him daily, and had shaken hands with him a thousand times inn some village street; so true was he to the aspect of the pattern American, though with a certain extravagance which, possibly, I exaggerated still further by the delighted eagerness with which I took it in. If put to guess his calling and livelihood, I should have taken him for a country schoolmaster as soon as anything else. He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed, and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be an outer skin of the man. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning, after the disarrangement of the pillow; and as to a night-cap, Uncle Abe probably knows nothing of such effeminacies. His complexion is dark and sallow, betokening, I fear, an insalubrious atmosphere around the White House; he has thick black eyebrows and an impending brow; his nose is large, and the lines about his mouth are very strongly defined.

The whole physiognomy is as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States; but, withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity, that seems weighted with rich results of village experience. A great deal of native sense; no bookish cultivation, no refinement; honest at heart, and thoroughly so, and yet, in some sort, sly,--at least, endowed with a sort of tact and wisdom that are akin to craft, and would impel him, I think, to take an antagonist in flank rather than to make a bull-run at him right in front. But, on the whole, I like this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it; and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place."""

While hardly the abolitionist that a RW Emerson was--Hawthorne attended the hanging of John Brown (RE Lee supervising, Lt. Jeb Stuart working the gallows), and did not disapprove of said hanging--yet as the "War Matters" essay indicates he did not think highly of the rebel stars in the Federal flag, and supported the Union cause, notwithstanding his description of Uncle Abe as the unsophisticated though good-natured yokel. Or something. And NH's prose style--Mozart to the git-fiddlin' of the usual Merican hacks.

""Immediately on his entrance the President accosted our member of Congress, who had us in charge, and, with a comical twist of his face, made some jocular remark about the length of his breakfast. He then greeted us all round, not waiting for an introduction, but shaking and squeezing everybody's hand with the utmost cordiality, whether the individual's name was announced to him or not. His manner towards us was wholly without pretence, but yet had a kind of natural dignity, quite sufficient to keep the forwardest of us from clapping him on the shoulder and asking him for a story. A mutual acquaintance being established, our leader took the whip out of its case, and began to read the address of presentation. The whip was an exceedingly long one, its handle wrought in ivory (by some artist in the Massachusetts State Prison, I believe), and ornamented with a medallion of the President, and other equally beautiful devices; and along its whole length there was a succession of golden bands and ferrules. The address was shorter than the whip, but equally well made, consisting chiefly of an explanatory description of these artistic designs, and closing with a hint that the gift was a suggestive and emblematic one, and that the President would recognize the use to which such an instrument should be put.

This suggestion gave Uncle Abe rather a delicate task in his reply, because, slight as the matter seemed, it apparently called for some declaration, or intimation, or faint foreshadowing of policy in reference to the conduct of the war, and the final treatment of the Rebels. But the President's Yankee aptness and not-to-be-caughtness stood him in good stead, and he jerked or wiggled himself out of the dilemma with an uncouth dexterity that was entirely in character; although, without his gesticulation of eye and mouth,--and especially the flourish of the whip, with which he imagined himself touching up a pair of fat horses,--I doubt whether his words would be worth recording, even if I could remember them. The gist of the reply was, that he accepted the whip as an emblem of peace, not punishment; and, this great affair over, we retired out of the presence in high good-humor, only regretting that we could not have seen the President sit down and fold up his legs (which is said to be a most extraordinary spectacle), or have heard him tell one of those delectable stories for which he is so celebrated. A good many of them are afloat upon the common talk of Washington, and are certainly the aptest, pithiest, and funniest little things imaginable; though, to be sure, they smack of the frontier freedom, and would not always bear repetition in a drawing-room, or on the immaculate page of the Atlantic. ""

[3] [Note by G.P.L.: ] The above passage relating to President Lincoln was one of those omitted from the article as originally published, and the following note was appended to explain the omission, which had been indicated by a line of points --

We are compelled to omit two or three pages in which the author describes the interview and gives his idea of the personal appearance and deportment of the President. The sketch appears to have been written in a benign spirit and perhaps conveys a not inaccurate impression of its august subject; but it lacks reverence, and it pains us to see a gentleman of ripe age, and who has spent years under the corrective influence of foreign institutions, falling into the characteristic and most ominous fault of Young America.

Good Heavens! what liberties have I been taking with one of the potentates of the earth, and the man on whose conduct more important consequences depend than on that of any other historical personage of the century! But with whom is an American citizen entitled to take a liberty, if not with his own chief magistrate? However, lest the above allusions to President Lincoln's little peculiarities (already well known to the country and to the world) should be misinterpreted, I deem it proper to say a word or two in regard to him, of unfeigned respect and measurable confidence. He is evidently a man of keen faculties, and, what is still more to the purpose, of powerful character. As to his integrity, the people have that intuition of it which is never deceived. Before he actually entered upon his great office, and for a considerable time afterwards, there is no reason to suppose that he adequately estimated the gigantic task about to be imposed on him, or, at least, had any distinct idea how it was to be managed; and I presume there may have been more than one veteran politician who proposed to himself to take the power out of President Lincoln's hands into his own, leaving, our honest friend only the public responsibility for the good or ill success of the career. The extremely imperfect development of his statesmanly qualities, at that period, may have justified such designs. But the President is teachable by events, and has now spent a year in a very arduous course of education; he has a flexible mind, capable of much expansion, and convertible towards far loftier studies and activities than those of his early life; and if he came to Washington a back-woods humorist, he has already transformed himself into as good a statesman (to speak moderately) as his prime-minister"


Moriarty said...

Of American literary history I know little to nothing--a bit of A Scarlet Letter I recall, not entirely with pleasure. While Hawthorne was not incapable of eloquence, he-- in my estimation-- often seems to resort to rhetorical tricks, instead of creating inspired literature.

Irregardless I am not convinced Hawthorne was sympathetic to the Northern cause. The essay above doesn't change that opinion. Hawthorne does present Lincoln as a yokel--but doesn't seem at all favorably disposed towards Uncle Abe.

I don't have the time--or wherewithal--to look through Hawthorne's biography of Franklin Pierce at present, but suffice it say, Hawthorne was close with Pierce, a rabid anti-abolitionist and pen pal of Jefferson Davis himself. Prima facie, that does not bode well for your Hawthorne-was-a-union boy cause.

That said, I'm opposed to the idea that writers--whether classic or contemporary--must be "politically correct" at all times, yet it's quite evident from the historical record that Hawthorne does not fall in the class of the PC.

J said...

I'm not defending Hawthorne though found his essay on Lincoln an interesting bit of Americana (given much of the current hype about Civil war history and all). Hawthorne worked for the Pierce Admin., and while you are correct that he was not an abolitionist , that doesn't necessarily imply that he agreed with Pierce's politics across the board.

Moreover, Mor., people change their minds and political convictions, do they not. Once the rebels blasted Fort Sumter, and succeeded at First Bull-run (Hawthorne refers to the battle a few times--)--and killed a few thousand bluecoats-- I imagine a few waffling northerners decided to throw their lot in with the Union, even if --as in the case of the democrat Hawthorne-- that meant siding with the dreaded republicans. Pierce may have wrote to the bumbler Davis. Hawthorne didn't and perhaps realized how foolhardy the Davis/Breckinridge/Lee gambit was.

Hawthorne may have lampooned Abe a bit in the essay but he seems to approve of him, and the union cause. As HS Thompson would say Res ipsa loquitur:

"...on the whole, I like this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it; and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place."""

Sounds genuine, notwithstanding Hawthorne's usual witty banter--actually, I'd rate EA Poe as a superior writer to Hawthorne and most Merican scribes (--though also see Ambrose Bierce's CW narratives...raw as the Shiloh battlefield). Read NH's story Rappaccini's Daughter, however--hardly mere rhetoric. Nearly sci-fi circa 1850, and still relevant--concerned with the applications of scientific research, and the ethical questions posed by that research--(in modern terms, genetics, for instance).

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