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Absolutely Fascinating Abraham Lincoln

picture source: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/18/start-spreading-the-news/?ref=opinion

source: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/18/start-spreading-the-news/?ref=opinion

EXCERPTS:

“When Lincoln arrived at the Astor House, an amazing scene unfolded, which we have recorded thanks to the observations of a former reporter who had no clear vocation in 1861. Walt Whitman, formerly of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was ensnared by a traffic jam – no doubt caused by Lincoln – sitting on top of a stalled omnibus. At 41, he was a bit stalled himself, having delivered one stunning work of poetry in 1855, but not much since then. Gazing out at the scene before him, Whitman wrote:

From the top of an omnibus (driven up on side, close by, and blocked by the curbstone and the crowds) I had, I say, a capital view of it all and especially of Mr. Lincoln: his looks and gait; his perfect composure and coolness; his unusual and uncouth height; his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat pushed back on his head; dark-brown complexion; seamed and wrinkled yet canny-looking face; black, bush head of hair; disproportionately long neck; and his hands held behind, as he stood observing the people. He look’d with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces return’d the look with similar curiosity. In both there was a dash of comedy, almost farce, such as Shakespeare puts in his blackest tragedies.

Lincoln descended from his carriage before the sullen crowd, staring at him like an escaped creature from P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, across the street. Could this be Barnum’s celebrated ‘Man Monkey‘? As Whitman wrote, years later, there was fear for Lincoln’s safety:

The crowd that hemmed around consisted, I should think, of thirty to forty thousand men, not a single one his personal friend, while, I have no doubt (so frenzied were the ferments of the time) many an assassin’s knife and pistol lurked in hip- or breast-pocket there — ready, soon as break and riot came.

Then, in an act of political legerdemain so stunningly simple and natural, Lincoln won over the crowd by doing the one thing New Yorkers were not used to: he yawned at them. Or perhaps it was more of a stretch. But it seemed to break some of the tension. Then he did it again! Here is Whitman’s version of The Yawn That Took Manhattan:

The broad spaces, sidewalks, and street in that neighborhood and for some distance were crowded with solid masses of people — many thousands. The omnibuses and other vehicles had all been turn’d off, leaving an unusual hush in that busy part of the city. Presently two or three shabby hack barouches made their way with difficulty through the crowd and drew up at the Astor House entrance. A tall figure stepp’d out of the center of these barouches, paus’d leisurely on the sidewalk, look’d up at the granite walls and looming architecture of the grand old hotel — then, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turn’d around for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds…

The tall figure gave another relieving stretch or two of arms and legs; then, with moderate pace, and accompanied by a few unknown-looking persons, ascended the portico steps of the Astor House, disappeared through its broad entrance — and the dumb-show ended.

Whitman was smitten at first sight. In 1863 he wrote, Lincoln ‘has a face like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.’ Whitman would have been gratified to know that the admiration was mutual – Lincoln had been reading ‘Leaves of Grass’ in his Springfield law office before heading East.

Today, the city that almost gave Lincoln the cold shoulder boasts no fewer than four statues of him, including one in Union Square. His next parade there would be his funeral procession, four years later, when a six-year old Theodore Roosevelt was photographed in a window paying his respects to his predecessor.”

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