Friday, February 12, 2010
A. Lincoln, February 12, 1809
On the joy of sharing a room with a man a few days before he dies
He's right there when I enter the classroom first thing in the morning, his gentle smile directly in my line of sight. That's just the way I wanted it. The photograph is in the public domain, and so I could have gotten it for free, but I was glad to pay an online poster company for an image that's about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It came shortly before his hundred 199th birthday. Now I celebrate every day.
It's a pretty famous picture. One of about a half-dozen we have engraved in our collective memory, trotted out by retailers for Presidents’ Day sales. It was taken by Alexander Gardner, former assistant of the famed Matthew Brady, who got tired of Brady getting credit for his pictures and struck out on his own. Gardner had been out in the field taking pictures at the front, but came back to Washington and had secured an appointment with the president. Though there's some dispute about the dating, the consensus is that was taken on April 10, 1865, about four days before he died. This was just after the fall of Richmond, one of the few truly happy days of his presidency. Earlier that week, he'd gone to the Confederate capital itself and swiveled in Jefferson Davis’s desk chair (he had a rebel five dollar bill in his pocket that night at Ford’s Theater). He had the good grace to be embarrassed when a group of former slaves threw themselves at his feet on the street, thanking him for their freedom. It was God, not I, who freed you, he said. Only one day earlier, Lee had surrendered to Grant; for all practical purposes, the war was over.
One of the things I love so much about the picture is that smile on his face, slight but unmistakable. That's very rare. People tend not to smile in 19th-century photographs because exposure times were relatively prolonged, and such expressions seem fake if you have to sustain them for more than a moment. Of course, there was also the matter that he didn't have a whole lot to smile about in those terrible days. The fact that he was doing so here, just after his gargantuan task was accomplished and just before he became another casualty in the struggle, seems almost unbearably moving.
Indeed, the smile, real as it is, does not hide the deep sense of sorrow etched into his face. He fingers his glasses with a kind of absent-minded gentleness. His bow tie is slightly off-center; to the last he never lost his rumpled quality. He managed to retain a full head of jet black hair and beard, only slightly touched with gray. Yet there's something almost steely about them. Though his face seems about as soft as the bark on a tree, I find myself wishing I could run my hand across it. Walt Whitman had it right -- he's so ugly that he's beautiful. But it's the eyes that haunt me. His right eye is a socket; he looks like he's half dead already. His left eye is cast downward slightly. It does not seem focused on anything in the room, but seems instead to be gazing within, saturated with a sadness that nothing will ever take away. They say he had a great sense of humor and loved cracking jokes to the very end, and I believe it. Surely there was no man on the face of the earth who could have savored a good laugh more. A look into those eyes could leave no doubt. But the strongest impression conveyed by the photograph is one of compassion. Kindness as a form of wisdom. That's my aspiration. In a few minutes, this room will be filled with hungry, well fed adolescents. Some will be laughing, some will be content. But surely it will do someone some good to have him there. He'll be gazing out for the discussion of Little Big Horn, the Pullman Strike, the New Deal, the request for an extension on the research essay, and lunch. Long after I'm gone, he will remain.
Happy 201, Mr. Lincoln. Thank you.