I had planned to see the famous log cabin, Lincoln’s birthplace; “My earliest memories are of the place on the knobs,” he recalled. The Lincoln family, after terrible struggles to endure bad weather and failing crops and the death of their youngest son, pulled up stakes and moved to Springfield, which would become much more widely associated with the Lincoln legend.
It is a legend.
Very few of us know anything substantial about this complicated, God-fearing, dark-browed man, who dreamed of his assassination three nights before it happened. In the dream, Lincoln heard sobbing and got up to go downstairs and see what was happening. No one was there yet the sobbing increased. In one of the formal rooms, he saw a casket and asked the guard, “Who has died in the White House?”
“The president,” the guard replied.
I wonder if this country as it is now composed would have any tolerance for a man so shadowed—and so radical.
Certainly the Emancipation Proclamation was a radical move, although Lincoln delayed it by a year to prevent the border states, including Kentucky, from defecting to the Confederacy. During that year, slaves were bought and sold, beaten, raped, and many died with no idea that their suffering was about to come to an end—officially. It has never really come to an end, but at least it is no longer legal to enslave and torture those we still tend to think of as Other.
The Lincoln History Museum on the main square in Hodgenville was open but its custodian was next door, decorating the Christmas tree at the community center. It seems that the poorer a town is, the sooner it launches into the great commercial celebration of the birth of Christ.
Hodgenville is poor. Once it might have been the center of an agricultural region, but those years of limited prosperity are long gone. This is not tobacco or distillery country, the only somewhat reliable sources of revenue in the state.
Kentucky has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation: 15.5 per 100,000 people versus the national average of 12.5. Poverty, lack of education, and the drug and alcohol abuse that darkened the childhoods of my writing students at Western all contribute. Hodgenville is in LaRue County which boasts a suicide rate of 12.36, just slightly less than the national average.
I think this may possibly be because the Lincoln Museum and the little shops around the plaza are hanging on; the hamburger stand was full of laborers on their break, the sweet shop deserted—men in the hamburger stand, no women in the sweet shop—and the bookstore piloted by a man who spends his days among shelves of old and new books, and keeps his enthusiasm for his trade. His best seller, he told me, is The Cornbread Mafia about a ring of marijuana growers in central Kentucky in the 1960’s; one went to jail for twenty years.
“Are people buying it because they want to learn how to grow the crop?” I asked—if it is ever legalized here.
“No—they buy it to look up people they knew.”
And it is ever so… My book The Blue Box attracts part of its audience from Kentuckians who want to look up people they knew—or at least have heard of. I hope they are surprised by my account.
The museum, once its curator arrived and unlocked the door, was an attic for the prized remains of local families: woodcarvings of Lincoln, nineteenth century dresses, precious quilts. The legend here is in full, if somewhat faded bloom, especially in the dioramas representing the famous scenes in the president’s life. The mannequins, with their frozen faces, are unintentionally terrifying.
But someone with a sense of Lincoln’s radicalness had posted a printed piece of paper outside the museum’s door. It was titled, in bold, PRESIDENT LINCOLN MADE THIS PROCLAMATION IN 1863.
The president wrote:
We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown. But we have forgotten God…It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins…
I do by my proclamation, designate, and set apart Thursday, the 30th of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer…
Impossible to imagine that this proclamation was ever obeyed, in the crisis of the Civil War or thereafter. We as a nation have no use for humility. And while it is difficult in the state that nurtures a county clerk who refuses to marry gay couples—and is still being paid for a job she refuses to do—and where the newly elected Tea Party Republican governor has vowed to disembowel the Affordable Health Care which is providing 400 thousand Kentuckians with their first medical insurance—still, I have a suspicion that as a nation we could afford some humility and even some fasting and prayer.
The refugees from Syria we refuse to save. The thousands of civilians killed by drone strikes, conventional bombs, and other savage military interventions. The children growing up without hope of advanced education or rewarding jobs in forgotten towns like Hodgenville. Our sanctifying of greed and tolerance for corruption.
Perhaps a national day of humility might disembarrass us of some of the pernicious would-be leaders we are now threatened with anointing to the position once held by Abraham Lincoln. Let us not forget that he was a Republican who believed that his party stood for money and mankind, but when a choice had to be made, it stood for mankind (and perhaps he even realized, dimly, that that group included women).
I never did see the log cabin. It is a part of the legend, and it was raining too hard to drive further. But I saw the proclamation which is far more important than the legend, and far more quickly forgotten.