Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lincoln the International Hero

As I said last week ("Lincoln Statue in Canada", February 22nd, 2012), Abraham Lincoln deserves a statue in Canada because of his international reputation.  Indeed there are monuments to him in London and two other British cities, and (of all places) Mexico City.  These indicate the extent of Lincoln's fame and legacy.  I'd like to cite two literary sources that also indicate his status as a great, noble, even sainted figure.

One of the more In the February 7, 1909 edition of the New York World newspaper, famed Russian writer Leo Tolstoy revealed  a story about his encounter with the Lincoln legend.  During a visit the year before to the Caucasus Mountains region of southern Russia, he met local Muslim tribesmen (by his description).  He wrote that they knew little of the outside world, but they knew of Lincoln.  The stories they had heard were mostly myths, but all positive ones.  To quote Tolstoy:

"But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen. He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man."

He concluded by saying:

"Lincoln is a strong type of those who make for truth and justice, for brotherhood and freedom. Love is the foundation of his life. That is what makes him immortal and that is the quality of a giant. I hope that his centenary birth day will create an impulse toward righteousness among the nations. Lincoln lived and died a hero, and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives. May his life long bless humanity!”

I must wonder about every part of Tolstoy's story.  First, it is timed for the centennial of Lincoln's birth.  The figures within - the wily Caucasian (no pun intended) and the knowledgeable Russian socialist hero - indicate a huge power vacuum between subject and recorder.  He may also have embellished the story for American readers.  So we must put this into the "Hmm...maybe" category.

A more credible source is from "When Lincoln Died" by Canadian poet Edward William Thomson (1849-1924) from the same year (1909) as Tolstoy.  Thomson was a Civil War veteran, a trooper with the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry.  He also, interestingly, served in the Canadian Militia during the Fenian Raids of 1866 (normally, the Fenians - those fighting for Irish independence from Britain - are seen as Irish-American veterans of the Civil War; now here's someone on the other side!).  In 1909, he published this poem as a tribute to his former commander in chief.


WE talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night, 
Ten fur-coat men on North Saskatchewan's plain 
Pure zero cold, and all the prairie white 
Englishman, Scotchman, Scandinavian, Dane, 
Two Irish, four Canadians all for gain 
Of food and raiment, children, parents, wives, 
Living the hardest life that Man survives, 
And secret proud because it was so hard 
Exploring, camping, axeing, faring lean. 
Month in and out no creature had we seen 
Except our burdened dogs, gaunt foxes gray, 
Hard-feathered grouse that shot would seldom slay, 
Slinking coyotes, plumy-trailing owls, 
Stark Indians warm in rabbit-blanket cowls, 
And, still as shadows in their deep-tracked yard, 
The dun vague moose we startled from our way. 

We talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night 
Around our fire of tamarac crackling fierce, 
Yet dim, like moon and stars, in that vast light 
Boreal, tannery, shifting quick to pierce 
Ethereal blanks of Space with falchion streams 
Transfigured wondrous into quivering beams 
From Forms enormous-marching through the sky 
To dissolution and new majesty. 
And speech was low around our bivouac fire, 
Since in our inmost heart of hearts there grew 
The sense of mortal feebleness, to see 
Those silent miracles of Might on high 
Seemingly done for only such as we 
In sign how nearer Death and Doom we drew, 
While in the ancient tribal-soul we knew 

Our old, hardfaring father-Vikings' dreams 
Of Odin at Valhalla's open door, 
Where they might see the Battle-father's face 
Glowing at last, when Life and Toil were o'er, 
Were they but staunch-enduring in their place. 

We talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night. 
Oh sweet and strange to hear the hard-hand men 
Old-Abeing him, like half the world of yore 
In years when Grant's and Lee's young soldiers bore 
Rifle and steel, and proved that heroes live 
Where folk their lives to Labor mostly give. 
And strange and sweet to hear their voices call 
Him " Father Abraham," though no man of all 
Was born within the Nation of his birth. 
It was as if they felt that all on Earth 
Possess of right Earth's greatest Common Man, 
Her sanest, wisest, simplest, steadiest son, 
To whom The Father's children all were one, 
And Pomps and Vanities as motes that danced 
In the clear sunshine where his humor glanced. 

We talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night 
Until one spoke, " We yet may see his face" 
Whereon the fire crackled loud through space 
Of human silence, while eyes reverent 
Toward the auroral miracle were bent 
Till from that trancing Glory spirits came 
Within our semi-circle round the flame, 
And drew us closer-ringed, until we could 
Feel the kind touch of vital brotherhood 
Which Father Abraham Lincoln thought so good. 

Thomson also penned "Father Abraham Lincoln," a semi-autobiographical work about his time in the War.  They appear in his 1909 book "When Lincoln Died and Other Poems."  Many of his poems portray the Victorian era's Anglo-Saxon prejudices quite well - about the white man's rule being so benign.  We now know that is far from true.

Nonetheless, I think that both are fascinating examples of 19th Century foreigners mind thinking about Lincoln.  Tolstoy's and Thomson's views are colored by distance, time, and politics.  Yet in each, he is the ideal hero.

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