Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, by Douglas L. Wilson, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998, $30.
Douglas L. Wilson’s title, Honor’s Voice, would seem to question the efficacy of monument-raising. The phrase “honor’s voice” comes from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” which reads: “Can storied urn or animated bust/Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?/Can Honor’s voice provoke the silent dust,/Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?” While the words, in context, speak of the fruitlessness of attempting, through memorials, to recapture the vitality of the dead or to otherwise do justice to their lives andaccomplishments, the remainder of Gray’s poem nonetheless affirms the value and importance of paying tribute. Similarly, Wilson’s book focuses on the transformationof Abraham Lincoln, a person who is ultimately worth paying tribute to.
Upon Lincoln’s death, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Wilson’s fine book does not deal with the Lincoln of the ages, the man who had scarcely breathed his last when the tributes to his heroism began. Instead, Wilson presents his subject’s young manhood in New Salem and Springfield, Ill., during 183142. Lincoln was tall and gawky, shabbily dressed, ill at ease with women, and seen by his Midwestern neighbors as something of a slacker when it came to physical labor.
Yet the seeds of greatness were already there, according to Wilson. If Lincoln was not yet a hero, neither was he an everyman. By day, he held down jobs as bargeman or store clerk; by night, he read Burns, Gray, the King James version of the Bible, Shakespeare, and all the books on rhetoric he could lay his hands on.
What he read was reflected in his writing. The early efforts were raw, the sentences lacking in balance. Yet letters sent to family, friends, business associates and newspaper editors later on evidenced his genius.
During that same period, Lincoln read standard law books–all on his own, without the benefit of a law-school class. Then, having mastered language and law, Lincoln was certified an attorney by the state of Illinois. He next ran for a seat in the state assembly, lost on his first effort, ran again two years later at the age of 25 and won, moving from New Salem to Springfield to take up his legislative duties.
The pivotal section of Wilson’s book explores Lincoln’s tumultuous relationship with Mary Todd, his future wife. A tentative, unsure Lincoln had reneged on the couple’s understanding that they were traveling inexorably toward marriage. Hurt, Mary freed Lincoln to see other women. But he wanted no one else.
Lincoln wooed Mary once more, won her back, and after their marriage on November 4, 1842, gained in her his staunchest ally. Mary would later say her husband was “a terribly firm man when he set his foot down–none of us–no man nor woman could rule him after he had made up his mind….I could tell when Mr. Lincoln had decided any thing: he was cheerful at first–then he pressed–or compressed his lips tightly–firmly. When these things showed themselves to me I fashioned myself and so all others had to do sooner or later–and the world found it out.”
In Honor’s Voice, Wilson shows how the young Lincoln of New Salem and Springfield evolved into the mature Lincoln of the presidency and, ultimately, into the deathless Lincoln of his nation’s consciousness. As T.S. Eliot might have observed, in Lincoln’s beginning was his end, and in his end was his beginning.
William E. McSweeney