Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Living with Lincoln: His death

It is has been said that there are only two certainties: death and taxes. In the life of any Lincoln fan, the two go together. For it was on what has come to be known as Tax Day, April 15, that Abraham Lincoln died. He breathed his last at 7:22am, and I constantly find myself looking at clocks at either 7:22am or 7:22pm; I seem to see that time at least once a week, and I always register that it was when Lincoln died.

You see, Lincoln fans experience his death innumerable times: in books, in movies, in plays, in classes, in one's imagination. Lincoln's reputation, his belovedness, began with his death. It's the climax to the war, the culmination of that whole era, the coda to his life. It remains one of the most tragic moments in American history and was certainly the most shocking death of its time.

Political assassination was unknown in America until John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on the evening of April 14, 1865. Since then, assassinations and assassination attempts have become if not frequent, at least a constant possibility. I was appalled that the night Barack Obama was elected president that he addressed a large outdoor throng that hadn't been frisked before entering the park, and without a bulletproof barrier or visible security on stage.

When I was younger, and reading every book I could find about Lincoln (which is endless; he is believed to be the second-most-written-about person in history, next to Jesus Christ), the assassination was my favorite part. I couldn't wait to get through the book so I could "enjoy" the death scene; in fact, I eventually began to read the end of Lincoln books first, and only at the end go back and read from the beginning. To me, the skill with which the assassination was described was the key marker as to the quality of the book overall.

(Mind you, my oldest daughter is just the opposite. My wife bought her a children's book about Lincoln when she was small, and when she saw a drawing of him getting shot at the end of the book, she had nightmares and wouldn't even allow the book to stay in her room.)

In my life of living through Lincoln's death, there are two times when I was moved to tears by the portrayal. The second time was during Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War. His skill in manipulating still images and accompanying music and sound effects (not to mention silence), coupled with the narration of David McCullough, made for an emotional sequence. Subsequent to the broadcast, I saw an interview with Burns where he talked about putting that sequence together. He recalled being in the sound room where the sound effects would be added to the film. At the moment when he was to push a button to deploy the sound of a gunshot, he paused, missed his cue. He said that he thought about this awesome, though false, power he had to stave off Lincoln's assassination. After composing himself, the film was rewound and the bullet left Booth's gun with relentless and awful inevitability.

The first time, however, is a story I've told before and will tell again because it affected me so much. It was 1983. I was in college at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, sitting in a large lecture hall packed with students in the always oversubscribed class called "The Civil War Era," taught by Stephen B. Oates, author of With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, a book I've read five or six times, once before entering college.

Professor Oates was a slim but powerful Texan, always dressed to the nines, and as immaculately prepared for class as he was attired. As a lecturer, I know no equal. He was dramatic but not overly so. Though you couldn't take your eyes off him, he was not the center of attention. He brought the characters he spoke about to life, brought them on stage to tell their stories. No, he didn't role play or do anything hokey with costumes or theatrical gestures. He simply told his stories powerfully, clearly, and with passion and empathy.

While Oates was a stickler for detail when he graded tests and papers, he was not insistent that notes be strictly kept. "Put down your pencils, you won't forget this," he said on more than one occasion. He knew there's a lot you can miss when you're transcribing instead of listening. I know it to be true because one of the times he said that was when he transformed the lecture hall into Ford's Theatre and brought us into the sorrow and confusion of what Walt Whitman called a "moody, tearful night."

Oates often said that he was glad the lecture hall we were in had no windows, because he didn't want students to be able to look out and see 20th century Amherst. On this day, I almost would have welcomed them because when Oates was done I was a wreck. I felt as though I was there witnessing this calamity first hand. I felt as though the murdered man was an actual loved one and that this event, this unimaginable tragedy, had just occurred. Is that gunpowder I smell? Horse's hooves that I hear? Am I crammed into the tiny room in the Peterson House where Lincoln's lifeless body lies diagonal on the too-small bed, and is that why I am gasping for breath? Is this early morning rain on my cheeks?

All around me, classmates arose, gathered their things, and walked out the door. Oates, as always, stayed to answer questions. I could neither move, nor speak. I just sat there for minutes, until I noticed students starting to arrive for the next class taking place in that hall. Reluctantly, slowly, I stood and walked out. The sunlight burned my eyes, dried my tears. The 20th century slapped my face, and I struggled to resume my day. That night, I opened my notebook. No notes. Had it happened at all? Yes, it was all too real. I had just experienced the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Intellectually, I had experienced it many times. Emotionally, however, it was the first time, and the most moving and lasting. And for that, I am eternally thankful to Stephen B. Oates.

1 comment:

Geoff Elliott said...

Thank you for a beautifully written post about Lincoln's death. Just this morning, I was interviewed by my local paper about Lincoln. One of the questions the reporter asked me is what makes Lincoln so "great" or memorable in our psyche. I told her that it's impossible to give a single reason, but that in my opinion, a large part of the reason is his assassination.

Lincoln scholars and enthusiasts know, of course, that Lincoln was not universally loved until he was killed. People of the era were struck by the parallels to Christ, Lincoln being shot on Good Friday and so on.

While Lincoln's assassination greatly saddens me, I am nonetheless fascinated by it. One of my very first Lincoln books (given to me when I was only 8 years old) was "Twenty Days," a powerful book about the assassination and the funerals staged for Lincoln across the east and middle-west.

Thank you so much for this posting and for bringing it to my attention. Well done!