The great Illinois poet Carl Sandburg — the scribe of his big-shouldered city — published “Chicago Poems” in 1916. A prolific non-fiction author and poet, Sandburg wrote volumes upon volumes chronicling the childhood and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln — a fellow man of the Midwest—fascinated him, and Sandburg’s fascination spawned one of his most unassuming poems: a mere quatrain entitled “In a Back Alley.”
“Remembrance of a great man is this,” wrote Sandburg. “The newsies are pitching pennies. / And on a copper disk is the man’s face. / Dead lover of boys, what do you ask for now?”
Two hundred years later, the conversation between Lincoln and his legacy has tempered. Sandburg encapsulates this kind of passive remembrance. We remember Honest Abe in token places: our pennies and our Presidents’ Day, crammed in with George Washington as a demigod of American history.
We remember Lincoln in token catchphrases, too. Lincoln freed the slaves; he had a wife named Mary Todd. He lived in a log cabin and taught himself to read, so stay in school and eat your vegetables. Abraham Lincoln liked to wear a big black top hat, and at the end of his life, a bad man shot him in the neck at a theatre in Washington D.C. As children, we listened. And we learned — legs crossed in a kindergarten carpet on a Presidents’ Day past — that evil existed in the world. Sic semper tyrannis, or something like that.
Last Sunday, Abraham Lincoln turned 203 years old. He celebrated his birthday with little fanfare—as dead men often do. His life merited a token Twitter mention from @Yale. One day later, 20th Century Fox released the teaser-trailer for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a new film — based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name — that imagines Honest Abe as a vampire slayer-cum-abolitionist, wielding his trademark axe against the evils of slavery and vampirism alike.
But Abraham Lincoln’s life deserves a complexity of understanding that we do not afford him on the front of a five-dollar bill. We tend to remember Lincoln as though he were eternally great — and as though any acknowledgement of flaw or fault poses an existential threat to Lincoln’s legacy of greatness. Abraham Lincoln deserves more.
Lincoln’s evolution of thought — not some sort of static exceptionalism — made him remarkable. Over the course of his life, and especially during the Civil War, Lincoln did a lot of thinking. He grappled with his moral objections to slavery and the political realities of his time. He thought about realism and idealism and tried to find where, if anywhere, the two might intersect. Sometimes, he even changed his mind. His beliefs evolved — not as a result of politically prudent flip-flopping, but rather of genuine thought.
Lincoln was not — as we are so often told as children — born perfect. But in actively and affirmatively wrestling with issues — and in challenging himself and others — Lincoln became more perfect, much like the Union he tried to create. And he became, in a way, like us — or, more accurately, how we could be — as he and we and Americans everywhere work through the issues of our time.
This Presidents’ Day, if you remember Abraham Lincoln at all, do not remember Abraham Lincoln because he was perfect. Remember him as someone who, as it turns out, really did have the complexity of someone who secretly fought vampires in his spare time. Lincoln said it best: “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Like Lincoln, we’re all striving to be better.
Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.