By Michael Lynch
A few days ago I paid a visit to Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, NC. Sandburg was born in Galesburg, IL, site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate—one of the reasons he was so interested in Lincoln is because he grew up in Lincoln country, among people who remembered Lincoln firsthand—but he moved to the North Carolina mountains in 1945, where his wife could raise the dairy goats for which she was famous. Ironically, the Sandburgs’ farm, “Connemara,” once belonged to Christopher Memminger, Secretary of the Treasury for the Confederate States of America.
I owe one of my first encounters with Lincoln to Sandburg. When I was a kid, my teacher assigned Abe Lincoln Grows Up to the whole class as a required book. I read part of it in the anteroom of an office in Duke Hall, the former home of LMU’s Lincoln collection, while waiting for my mom to get out of a meeting. (The collection itself had long since been moved to the museum by then, so I didn’t make the Lincoln-Duke Hall connection until years later, when I was enrolled as a student.)
Abe Lincoln Grows Up consists of material drawn from Sandburg’s two-volume work Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. That book and its four-volume sequel, The War Years, are the result of extensive research, and volumes on Lincoln and the Civil War are still prominent among the 11,000 books still sitting on the shelves of his North Carolina home.
But Sandburg was hardly scrupulous when it came to setting down all the material he collected. Like Parson Weems, the early biographer of Washington, he loved colorful anecdotes whether he could substantiate them or not. He didn’t distinguish between Lincoln fact and Lincoln legend because he was not writing a conventional biography. His Lincoln books are as much populist prose poems as anything else.
Lincoln’s humble origins, his abiding faith in democratic government, and his monumental achievements on behalf of freedom made it easy for Sandburg to turn him into a hero of the common man. Both he and Lincoln, Sandburg believed, had sprouted from the same soil; Sandburg noted that he, too, was “a son of the prairie, a poor boy.” Perhaps because of this sense of kinship, Sandburg felt free to crawl inside his subject’s head, as in this passage:
Maybe he would grow up; his feet would be farther away from his head and his chin if he grew up; he could pick apples without climbing a tree or throwing clubs—if he grew up. Maybe then, after growing up, he would know more about those words he heard men saying, “in-de-pend-ent,” “pre-des-ti-na-tion.” Daniel Boone—yes, he could understand about Daniel Boone—wearing moccasins and a buckskin shirt. But George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the President in Washington, James Madison—they were far off; they were sort of like God; it was hard to make pictures of their faces.
Some critics found the books to be nothing more than a mish-mash of anecdotes, legends, and history. One historian referred to Sandburg’s work as “a literary grab bag,” while Edmund Wilson called it “an album of Lincoln clippings” and “the cruellest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth.” Certainly no one would consider The Prairie Years or The War Years to be examples of careful scholarship.
And yet Sandburg’s is possibly the oldest Lincoln biography which still finds a wide readership, at least in its distilled one-volume form. (Sandburg worked on this abridged version while living at Connemara.) The shelf life of historical scholarship is usually short, lasting only until some new synthesis comes along, but genuine works of literature endure as long as people find beauty in the language and meaning in the themes. Sandburg’s populist myth doesn’t always offer us an accurately reconstructed Lincoln, but it does offer us a living one, and one who reflects what Americans want to believe about themselves.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.