Sunday, February 15, 2009

The "mystery" of Lincoln, just down the street from Dickinson

On this American presidential holiday weekend, just after the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, images of the 16th president flicker across cable news channels along with tales of economic stimulus plans, Oscar buzz and the usual lot of bipartisan bickering. Google News finds 3500 stories about Lincoln in just the past 24 hours, from his top ranking among all American presidents to his relevance to citizens today.

But amidst all the Lincoln-related pixels, ink and airtime, I just want to stop and reflect on a related something recently mentioned by one of the top podcasters around, Christopher Lydon.

In the latest episode of his "Radio Open Source" series, Lydon leaves behind a fragment of a thought that deserves a little more consideration. Lydon interviews Lincon's literary biographer Fred Kaplan:

Fred Kaplan’s literary life story of Lincoln is conceived as a mystery, not unlike the riddle of Shakespeare: how did the child of illiterates in a farm culture become an obsessive student and master of language in every form, from his tavern tales to the Second Inaugural?

Shakespeare and Lincoln, Lydon says, pose similar riddles. How can the brilliance of these men's careers be reconciled with their own humble origins? This is how the Shakespeare authorship issue is typically framed.

And, I say, it's the wrong question.

Not to diminish the mystery of Honest Abe, but there's nothing I'm aware of in President Lincoln's writings that suggests any biographical portrait other than the Abraham Lincoln bio we're all familiar with. Lincoln was a writer -- and a president -- of supreme intellect, possessing a deft literary mind and oratory gift. Nothing a student of any decent high school American history course doesn't already know. But Lincoln's personal biographical journey, from rural Kentucky and Illinois to Springfield to Washington, D.C., is reflected, throughout his life, in the products of his pen.

Lydon himself quotes two fine examples of this fact, in letters Lincoln wrote to friends Mary and Joshua Speed from 1841 and 1855, about the fundamental primacy of liberty and about Lincoln's visceral reaction to watching newly purchased Kentucky slaves being dispersed into the deep South.

Both excerpts offer lyrical examples of Lincoln's supremacy as a craftsman of prose, grabbing a reader by the shirt collar -- while still somehow managing to wax philosophical about big political ideas. Both excerpts are also creative expressions based in known biographical facts about Lincoln's life -- his doings, his friendships, his whereabouts, etc.

So where's the mystery?

I write these words literally just a mile from the homestead of Emily Dickinson, a poet of practically unparalleled genius in her time who spent the vast majority of her life in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, writing some 1800 poems but only publishing 18 during her lifetime.

The mystery of Dickinson's boundlessly fertile imagination, like that of Lincoln's prolific muse, is in a primal sense, the mystery of literary creativity itself: Where does this amazing stuff all come from? Dickinson barely saw much of the world beyond western Massachusetts, and yet her works touch lives all over the planet and will continue to do so as long as there are eyes to read. Immortal, worldly verse from a very mortal, unworldly source.

And, wow, can the noodle salad of these kinds of musings go on for ever and ever amen.

There's nothing wrong with pondering such imponderables. But recognize the Whence Springs Creativity question for what it is: An open invitation for speculations that can't satisfactorily be answered or proved or disproved.

The "riddle of Shakespeare," however, is something else altogether. It's not about the nebulous origins of an individual's creative imagination but rather about the character of its content. What's the story this person's writings tell? And is that story consistent with the life story we've been told about the person? Does the literary biography jibe with the literary output?

In the cases of Abraham Lincoln and Emily Dickinson, I submit, the bottom-line answer to this simple question is Yes. With Shakespeare it is No.

The primary objection in the authorship issue is not that Will Shakespeare of Stratford had humble origins that therefore disqualify him from writing any kind of immortal plays and poems. (Cf. the Snobbery red herring.) Rather, it is simply that, the life story being told in the Shakespeare canon belongs to somebody else.

That's where the focus belongs. And so long as the "riddle" of the Bard remains expressed as a negative (unsophisticated Will of Stratford could not have created the sublime Shakespeare canon) rather than a positive (boundless connections between de Vere's life and the Shakespeare plays and poems), I think, we lose.

Perhaps, by the time the Dickinson bicentennial rolls around in 2030, this little problem will be all sorted out. (Is 21 years too much to ask for a full resolution to the authorship question?)

Meantime, happy 200, Abe. May your mysteries continue to amaze and befuddle us for many generations to come.


Bruce Lewis said...

But, sir, here's what I want to know (and your book only partially answers it--up to the point at which I stopped; I'm still reading): for what reasons other than those of the censorship of his time did De Vere WANT to be anonymous?

I just can't accept the idea that authorship of such plays as Shake-speare wrote would be considered socially "demeaning"--even to an aristocrat of this proportion of genius.

Even according to you De Vere was already impoverished by the end of his life, his "preferment" was a lost cause, and Elizabeth didn't KILL people for writing plays, so what had he really to fear by revealing his authorship at the end?

Unknown said...


Your comment shows a mind firmly routed in American attitudes of egalitarianism and pride in "ownership." Set that aside for a moment and do the best you can to step into the very small privileged world of DeVere? Why on earth would someone at the "top" care for the recognition of anyone? What are a bunch of rubes to him? The Queen knew, and no doubt a few others, but what would possess him to tell others? Why on earth does anyone take credit for anything they write? You certainly don't own up to your comment, do you Bruce? Me either. And yet you cannot understand writing under a pseudonym?