The Face of Lincoln
It is rare indeed that there appears a “picture-book” which in every way, material, editing, production, achieves an excellence worthy of its subject. This monumental gathering of photographs of the most familiar American face amounts to a collective portrait which no contemporary artist caught with lasting satisfaction, and whose two finest sculptures were posthumous.* As James Mellon, collector, editor, and patron of this volume, writes: “In punishing him for having been apotheosized, they [the historians] have refused him the right to be a man.” Ever since martyrdom Lincoln has simultaneously grown nearer and more remote. His credited biographers, Nicolay and Hay, Ida Tarbell, Charnwood, Beveridge, Randall, have enlarged on fact and background, while diminishing his humanity.
Cards representing books about Lincoln in the Library of Congress run to some five thousand. T.S. Eliot, in a preface to his mother’s blank-verse drama laid in the Italian Renaissance, remarked that those who use historical sources tell more about the times in which they write than about the epoch they purport to depict. Carl Sandburg’s six hefty volumes, for decades a criterion, are now put down for poeticizing and prolixity. In his superb Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson is severe. While admitting that later editions improved by abbreviation, he wrote of Sandburg’s lifework as “a long sprawling book that eventually had Lincoln sprawling.” Yet “sprawling” suggests a rough-hewn intimacy which more academic biographers dare not or cannot risk. To a degree, The Prairie Years and The War Years parallel portraits of Lincoln (Mellon, plates 49 and 54) from which the face on our five-dollar bill and one-cent copper penny derive.
In Mellon’s breathless gallery few subsidiary persons are seen, save Lincoln’s son Tad, two secretaries, and soldiers at field headquarters. With the reduction of Sandburg (1954) as guide, this collection obliquely but plainly illuminates stages in a metamorphosis. The earliest likeness was probably made in Springfield, Illinois, 1846, when he was thirty-seven years old, and newly elected to the House of Representatives. There is already visible the enigma of his inward focus which will become a signature of so many subsequent portraits. This apartness or self-absorption, the fixity which is more self-centered than pleasing to curious voters, saturates his objectivity. In a campaign autobiography for 1860, when his name was as little known as his face, he wrote:
If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean, in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes—no other marks or brands recollected.
During the 1858 debates with Douglas, a New York Evening Post reporter wrote:
In repose, I must confess, “Long Abe’s” appearance is not comely. But stir him up and the fire of genius plays on every feature.
Photographs had a primary political purpose, to acquaint the electorate ignorant, except in Illinois, of a man whose emergence was, and would remain, miracle and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.