Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Disappointment

Dear Friends:

The piece that follows is an excerpt from Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs and Other Wonders Before Your Time, a collection of notes to my grandchild(ren) when they come of age. The book, written in 2005-2006, is in the pipeline now, and I’ll holler unapologetically when it’s released.

Enjoy!

John

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The photograph Robert Todd Lincoln said was “the best likeness of my father.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m starting this note to you from the World of Music basement while Micah takes his drum lesson. Because tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the place is quiet with cancelled lessons: no soprano squeezing out scales, no trumpet blatting, just Micah drumming and one lone kid plucking an electric guitar. What I want to tell you about has nothing to do with music, though. Abraham Lincoln is on my mind.

You know that every morning I glance at the newspaper headlines, but I haven’t mentioned that I also listen to a radio spot called The Writer’s Almanac. In five minutes, host Garrison Keillor talks in his soothing baritone about literature and history and reads a poem. During the past week he shared a couple of facts about Lincoln that I didn’t know.

The first has to do with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language. Since it’s short—only 272 words—I’ll type it out for you right here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Union dead at Gettysburg. (Credit: Wikipedia. Photographer: Timothy H. O’Sullivan)

I already knew that Lincoln wrote this address on an envelope during his train ride to Gettysburg. What I didn’t realize was that the dedication of the cemetery, situated on the ground where hundreds of soldiers were buried quickly in shallow graves after the battle, was a grand, carefully planned affair with fifteen thousand people attending. Edward Everett, who was famous for his speeches about battlefields, went on for over two hours cataloging the battle’s endless instances of bravery and valor. When he finished, Lincoln read his slender 272 words. By the time the event’s photographer got set, his subject had already sat back down; he managed one blurry shot.

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A blurry Lincoln at Gettysburg. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So restrained was the audience’s applause that Lincoln assumed his speech was a failure. Little did he know a century later school kids would be required to memorize his address, and English and history teachers would regard Lincoln, a politician, as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Everett, however, knew a great speech when he heard one. The next day he told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Of course, maybe Everett was mainly stroking the President’s ego.

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Edward Everett, who held forth when citizens had sturdy attention spans. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The second Abraham Lincoln story Garrison Keillor told this week had to do with the President’s letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War:

Dear Madam,–

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Oddly, Mrs. Bixby didn’t lose five sons. She lost two in battle; one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and another either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. Don’t misunderstand! This poor mother deserved every condolence she received, but the facts differ from those that inspired the President—if he wrote the letter at all. Most historians now believe that Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby was actually written by one of his White House secretaries, John Hay.

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John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary and assistant. Nice facial hair arrangement. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Do any of these historical facts matter? Not to us. I bet it would have mattered to Abraham Lincoln, though, on November 19, 1863, as he sat down after saying his 272 words, to know that his speech was much better than he first thought and that history would judge him a courageous President, a wise man, and an elegant writer. But how could he have known, that man in a lone grainy photograph who felt the weight of a nation on his tired shoulders?

Micro-Post: The Gentle Death of Anton Chekhov

(Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of short pieces–micro-posts–on stories/information of interest to nappers. I hope to offer a quick, entertaining read.)

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Anton Chekhov (Credit: Wikipedia)

Listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac this morning, I learned a few things about playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. If I’d have paid better attention in college, I’d have already known that . . .

  • Chekhov was a doctor, treating patients and writing on the side for eight years until he bought an estate forty miles outside of Moscow. There he wrote full-time while also giving free medical care to peasants in the area.
  • Chekhov wrote his most famous play, The Cherry Orchard, as a comedy, but Stanislavski intended to present it as a tragedy, with the actors “sobbing openly and dramatically.” “Chekhov was livid, and although he was seriously ill with tuberculosis by this time, he took an active part in the production to try to salvage the play. He traveled to Moscow against his doctor’s orders and worked furiously to revise and edit the play and supervise rehearsals.” The Cherry Orchard was a hit and placed Chekhov on the same pedestal with Tolstoy.
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Chekhov and Tolstoy at Yalta in 1900 (Credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose it’s hard to argue with success—to be celebrated for a work that you didn’t mean . . . that way . . . exactly. Shortly after the play’s premier in January of 1904 Chekhov listened to his doctor and went to a spa in Germany. I’ll let Garrison Keillor deliver the punchline:

“While in Badenweiler, [Chekhov] suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctor offered him sips of champagne, which was supposed to be beneficial to people with heart conditions. Chekhov remarked that he hadn’t had champagne for ages. He then turned on his side, closed his eyes as if to take a nap, and died.”

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In Your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest and champagne at the last. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Anton Chekhov was only forty-four, but what a way to go: champagne on his tongue, a nap in his heart, and a gentle exit.

P.S. My book, Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is nearly ready for release. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for details.

Intense Turkish Coffee and Our Primary Nervous Flux

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar

Honoré de Balzac, by Nadar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I obviously love my daily siesta, but there are people who never even consider resting at midday. My brother Ed is one of them. He’s a CPA, relaxed, well-adjusted, and says he never remembers taking a nap. Another might have been Honore de Balzac, a French novelist and playwright who, according the The Writer’s Almanac, drank twenty to forty cups of “intense Turkish coffee every day” and smoked lots of pipe tobacco. He claimed to have once worked forty-eight straight hours interspersed with only three hours rest, but in the end all the caffeine probably killed him.

Balzac’s essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” parses his obsession with and dependence on coffee: “Coffee affects the diaphragm and the plexus of the stomach, from which it reaches the brain by barely perceptible radiations that escape complete analysis; that aside, we may surmise that our primary nervous flux conducts an electricity emitted by coffee when we drink it.”

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Portrait of Honore de Balzac (Credit: Steve Hammond)

And Balzac was all about his “nervous flux” sparking. He favored drinking coffee before eating to maximize its effect. As the acid eats away at the “stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae,” “everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

If coffee had this effect on me, writing would be the last thing I’d want to do. I have plenty of agitation of my own. Other than an appreciation for wine and beer, I’m a chicken about stimulants or depressants. About twenty-five years ago, just before daughter Elena was born, I smoked hash with some friends and had the mother of all panic attacks. Ever since, I’ve been phobic about any drug that might make me lose control and freak out. During a bout with bronchitis a few years ago, I took cough syrup with codeine but couldn’t bring myself to use the prescribed inhaler, which might have messed with my temperamental heart rate. In short, my “primary nervous flux” generates too much electricity as it is. I need to power down, not ramp up.

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A Powering-Down Aid

Whether my powering-down siestas contribute anything to humanity is doubtful, but nobody can say that coffee didn’t work for Balzac and world literature. He wrote almost one hundred novels, short stories, and plays, and according to Wikipedia, his work influenced Proust, Zola, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Faulkner, and Kerouac.

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Portrait of Ewelina Hańska by Holz von Sowgen, 1825, miniature on ivory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the final year of his life, Balzac married Ewelina Hanski, whom he loved for many years, though she was married. Her husband Waclaw died in 1841, but it wasn’t until 1850 that Balzac was able to marry her. “On 14 March 1850, with Balzac’s health in serious decline, they drove from [Ewelina’s] estate in Wierzchownia (village of Verkhivnia) to a church in Berdyczow (city of Berdychiv, today in Ukraine) and were married. The ten-hour journey to and from the ceremony took a toll on both husband and wife: her feet were too swollen to walk, and he endured severe heart trouble” (Wikipedia). Five months later, Balzac died at fifty-one. “His wife had gone to bed and his mother was the only one with him” (The Writer’s Almanac).

Would a daily hour of oblivion have tempered the great author’s lust for caffeine? Maybe, but his work flashed out of his “nervous flux”; Balzac wouldn’t have been Balzac without coffee. Sumus quod sumus (we are what we are).

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Balzac’s Tomb (Photo Credit: Joop van Meer)