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Michael Winship: ''Let the Railsplitter Awake!''

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

''Let the Railsplitter Awake!''
By Michael Winship

A number of years ago, when I was writing a public television series for the Smithsonian Institution, I watched a woman in one of the museum’s conservation labs, restoring what appeared to be an old top hat.

What’s its story, I asked her? Oh, she replied nonchalantly, this is the hat Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night he was assassinated.


Actor Sam Waterston, aka District Attorney Jack McCoy on LAW & ORDER, had an even more visceral experience when he was preparing to play Abraham Lincoln and went to the Library of Congress to research the part.

“This guy took me down and down and down into the bowels of the library, down a long hall… all the way to what felt like the back of the building,” Waterston told my colleague Bill Moyers on a special edition of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL. There he met a curator who said, “Hold out your hands. These are the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was shot.”

Two pairs of glasses, a watch fob, a pocketknife, a handkerchief, monogrammed, “A. Lincoln” by his wife, Mary Todd. A wallet, inside of which were newspaper clippings and a Confederate five-dollar bill – a souvenir, perhaps, of the visit Lincoln had made to the conquered city of Richmond, Virginia, just a few days earlier.

“It was a galvanizing and very thrilling thing,” Waterston said. Proximity to such telling totems of America’s story, as sacred in their own way as the remains of a saint in a cathedral reliquary, make Lincoln human – as have Waterston’s various portrayals of our greatest President on stage and television.

So, too, the words of writers who have made Lincoln an enduring literary subject from his own lifetime right up to today, written about, it’s said, more than any other historic personage with the exception of Jesus Christ.

Lincoln was assassinated 144 years ago on Good Friday, and so Waterston is appearing on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL this week (premiering on PBS on Friday, April 10 at 9 pm ET) to read excerpts reflecting the ways in which Lincoln’s image has evolved and has been interpreted by great American writers – from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman to Delmore Schwartz and Allen Ginsberg.

Featured with Waterston is historian Harold Holzer, who has written, co-written or edited 22 books about Lincoln, including “The Lincoln Anthology,” published by the Library of America, from which Waterston’s readings were chosen. “Lincoln did nothing less than revolutionize the American political vocabulary,” Holzer said. “But no political leader, no political writer, not even Lincoln, can define his own place in the landscape of memory. That judgment belongs to those who portray the man in life, massage his biography into metaphor, and refine its meaning over what Lincoln called ‘all distances of time and space.’”

Lincoln himself said, “Writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world… Great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.” Some of the authors represented actually met him – Hawthorne, for example, a Democrat who nonetheless was won over by Lincoln’s “native sense” despite a “physiognomy as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States.”

“I liked this sallow, queer, sagacious visage,” he wrote, “… and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place.”

Whitman, Whittier and Melville worshipped him in death; African-American leader Frederick Douglass met and admired him, but kept a slight, although respectful distance, one generated by centuries of enslavement and doubt. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent,” he declared 11 years after Lincoln’s passing. “Only by measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.”

Forty-six years later, in 1922, civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois said, “Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century… the most human and loveable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet, triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”

Twentieth century poet Allen Ginsberg saw Lincoln through a “radical lens,” Holzer said. “A rallying cry for, not an impediment to, revolutionary change… an urgently needed inspiration.”

“Let the Railsplitter Awake!” Ginsberg cried, in his “Homage to Neruda:”

“Let Abraham come back, let his old yeast

rise in green and gold earth of Illinois,

and lift the axe in his city

against the new slave makers

against their slave whips

against the venom of the print houses

against all the bloodsoaked

merchandise they wanna sell.”

And so it goes, right up through Barack Obama’s evocation of Lincoln’s memory in speeches and at his own inauguration. “Lincoln is an inspiration to Barack Obama,” Harold Holzer told Bill Moyers “[He] brings us nearer to the completion of the unfinished work that Lincoln spoke about at Gettysburg. His election is a validation of that dream, even if it took 150 years to get to this point...

“Two little girls, Sasha and Malia Obama, who are the descendents, through their mother's side, of enslaved people, might this very evening be playing in the Lincoln bedroom, which was Lincoln's office, and the room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That is the apex of the arc of history since the Civil War.”

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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Mr. Simon states that most people are dishonest or manipulators. I accept that people become jaded because there are winners and losers, rich and poor...but the best people are honest, they treat others with respect and know that consequences follow actions and we are all role models all of the time. Mr. Simon is disdainful of statistics others employ then glibly uses statisics anecdotally from his life. Mr. Simon also fails to mention that even the most crime-ridden cities or neghborhoods will regain control when neighborhood associations organize and form citizen police or patrols. Citizens need not ask for permission to organize and get outside! Get up off your lazy asses and meet your neighbors! Know your neighbors! Interact with your neighbors. Only then willneighbors know who belongs and (bingo!) who does not. Criminals cannot operate when citizens are watching what transpires outside! Outside means not inside. A person or group must be outside watching and listening as opposed to being inside a dwelling, the exception being handicapped or elderly who are as willing and capable to assist in other and as important ways: organizing and communications and coordinating are a few examples. Criminals flee after seeing citizens where before they could do what the heck they wanted to do when they wanted! Are you following my simple logic?

I just read the post by Sidney Goldfarb, whose wonderful work as a poet and playwright I know well. The felicitous translation of Neruda's poem indeed bears his distinctive stamp. As an addendum to his comments I'd like to point out that the Village Voice review itself is not available online, though it can be found in the volume On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg by Lewis Hyde (apparently now out of print, but viewable on Google Books).

Goldfarb was too modest in his post: Berman's review stated that "the one significant advance from the last [Ginsberg] book, and the one major success, is an adaptation of Neruda, done with Sidney Goldfarb from an old Masses & Mainstream translation." Ginsberg was a good friend of Goldfarb's, and an admirer of his work. The fact that Goldfarb's name fell out of association with the poem is no doubt the result of editorial oversight in subsequent reprintings of the poem. It's time to set the record straight.
Jenny Fox

Into the statement attributed to Mr. Douglass I would insert the following between "consult" and "he": "and as a politician to sufficiently follow." Thus, I would proffer that "Forced into Glory" by Lerone Bennett Jr. would be closer to objective reality than most of the other biographical material re Lincoln. Why? Because the electorate whose sentiment Mr. Douglass referred to would not have elected him potus if the Bennett portrayal was not closer to the objective reality at the time than that of the other biographical material.

Can't say it better than mccheese0 did (except to correct the spelling to Waterston).

Hope you heed: "...Watterson [sic], I wish he would have broken down crying and got it over with. If I want to watch overacting I'll change channels and watch the shows he's normally on."

Dear Bill Moyers et all,
Watching your wonderful show on Lincoln I was surprised to find the Neruda poem on Lincoln attributed to Ginsberg alone. Ginsberg does not know Spanish. I translated it with him. In fact, I wrote most of it, with him approving when I got the sound he wanted.See the review of Plutonian Ode by Paul Berman, Village Voice, 21 March, 1982. Best, Sidney Goldfarb

Dear Bill, Thank you yet again for the Journal! You do so much to bring rationality, independent thought and critical thinking into the forefront of our consciousness while at the same time promoting a sense of worth, of grace, of return to the intelligent artistic side of us as well. We as Americans need to change our mentality from a "consumerist" approach to life to a knowledge-seeking approach to life without losing our sense wonder not only in our physical world but our awe of the marvelous things we can create and appreciate; things such as ideas, poetry, music, science and altruistic care for another. You do much to demonstrate the way to do it. Many thanks!

11 April 2009 Portland, OR I couldn't agree more with mccheeseO! Watterson, reading great perceptions of Lincoln, did so more to attract attention to himself than to dedicated admirers of Lincoln such as Whitman. The man was melodramatic, all the more so on a Good Friday -- the day Lincoln was slaughtered. ONLY when Bill ignited a conversation at the end did the "special" appeal. Odd, since the bold and often fiercely insightful "JOURNAL" is the one tv event we relish every Friday! Even classy journalists can fumble, so we will be optimistic next Friday.

What a waste. I'm a fan of Lincoln, like everyone. But damn, Watterson, I wish he would have broken down crying and got it over with. If I want to watch overacting I'll change channels and watch the shows he's normally on. The readers had good voices and maybe this would have worked great on Radio. But it wasn't great TV. Sorry.

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