Feb. 12, 2014


by David Shumate

If it weren't for the photographs, you might think Aeschylus or
Euripides had made him up. Or that he was one of those biblical
fellows tormented to the brink of what a soul can bear. But there
he stands. Long black coat. Tall hat. Half a beard. Droopy eyes. Ears
large enough to serve several men. Like the offspring of a midwife
and a coroner. A tree impersonating a man. Alongside him, his
generals seem daunted. Anxious for the day they too will grow
into men. Then there's that odd mix of joy and sorrow etched
across his face. As when a joke hits a little too close to home. Given
all that's gone on—Gettysburg, Antietam, both Bull Runs, four
long years of war, more than half a million dead, a wife moaning
on the balconies, a child in the grave—Given all that ... why hasn't
his hair turned pure white?

"Lincoln" by David Shumate from Kimonos in the Closet. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, born in Hardin County, Kentucky, in 1809.

Lincoln first officially declared his opposition to slavery in 1854, though he had long disapproved of it. In a speech against the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln said: "I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world." In 1858, he delivered his famous "House Divided" speech, with which he called for the unification of the country and gained the support of Northern Republicans, saying: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." In the wee hours of the morning on November 7, 1860, Lincoln received word that he had become the 16th president of the United States. He won only 40 percent of the popular vote, and carried not a single slave-holding state.

By the time he departed for Washington to take office, the country was in turmoil, and seven states had already seceded in the three months since his election. John Nicolay, Lincoln's personal secretary, remarked about the number of threats that crossed the president-elect's desk in those months. "His mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, and warnings of all sorts came to him from zealous or nervous friends," Nicolay wrote. "But he had himself so sane a mind, and a heart so kindly, even to his enemies, that it was hard for him to believe in political hatred so deadly as to lead to murder."

Before boarding the train to Washington, Lincoln bid farewell to his home of Springfield, Illinois: "My friends," he said, "no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. [...] I now leave, not knowing when or whether I may return, to a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington."

Meanwhile, in Maryland, railroad executives had hired detective and security expert Allan Pinkerton, because they were worried that secessionists would try to disrupt the inauguration by blowing up the tracks. Pinkerton uncovered something more sinister: an assassination plot set to be carried out in Baltimore. Because Lincoln didn't like ostentatious pageantry, he steadfastly refused to travel with a security detail. Pinkerton urged him to make his arrival as low-key as he possibly could, and worked out a secret itinerary to elude the assassins. Lincoln arrived in Baltimore in the middle of the night, several hours before he was expected, and then sneaked into the nation's capital at six o'clock in the morning. He agreed to a disguise: a soft wool hat and a shawl, and he slouched to try to conceal his height. At one point, he posed as an invalid who needed quiet and privacy. The press had a field day when they found out about his "surreptitious nocturnal dodging," and his critics never missed a chance to criticize him for cowardice.

Eventually, the reports of his disguise grew more and more elaborate, until they became the myth that he stole into town wearing his wife's clothes.

Some people, including Lincoln's friend and biographer Ward Hill Lamon, believe that there was no plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way to Washington. But on Good Friday in 1865, just five days after Lee surrendered to Grant to end the Civil War, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth crept into Lincoln's theater box and shot him in the back of the head. He was the first U.S. president to die by assassination.

It's the birthday of Charles Darwin (books by this author), born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England (1809). He was only 22 years old when he set sail for Patagonia on a surveying expedition of the HMS Beagle, working as an assistant to the captain. Darwin brought with him a book called Principles of Geology by Sir Charles Lyell, which suggested that the Earth was millions of years old.

During the five-year trip, Darwin got a chance to explore the Galapagos Islands. These islands were spaced far enough apart that the animals on them had evolved over time into different species. He collected all the evidence that he would need to construct his theories of evolution.

The journey was the only time Darwin ever left England. It took him a long time to publish his findings, mainly because he was afraid of being attacked as an atheist. But about 20 years later, he published his book On the Origin of Species (1859), the year before Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

It's the birthday of Judy Blume (books by this author), born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1938), the best-selling author of more than two dozen books for young people.

She was 27 years old, with two preschool-aged children, when she began writing seriously. For two years, she received constant rejections. Then in 1970, she had her big breakthrough, with the young adult novel Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. It's the story of 11-year-old Margaret Simon, the daughter of a Jewish father and Christian mother, and her adolescent attempts to make sense of things like religion, boys, and menstruation. The book was banned in many schools and libraries. It's one of the most challenged books of the last third of the 20th century. But it's also beloved by many, and it has been a big best-seller over the years.

She lives mostly in Key West, where she writes at a desk facing a garden. In the summer, she writes in a small cabin on Martha's Vineyard. She always writes in the morning. When she's working on a first draft, which she says is the hardest part, she writes seven days a week, even if only for an hour or two a day.

Blume is also the author of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972), Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great (1972), Blubber (1974), The Pain and the Great One (1974), Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself (1977), Superfudge (1980), Here's to You, Rachel Robinson (1993), and recently, Going, Going, Gone! with the Pain and the Great One (2008). Her books have sold more than 80 million copies.

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