Still current at 99

Richard Nelson Current’s 1958 biography of Abraham LIncoln shattered myths and inspired readers–including a certain Queens fifth-grader.

A few months ago I e-mailed my friend Marcia Current to ask if her husband felt strong enough to send his annual message to be read aloud at the Lincoln Forum, the symposium that bestows an annual achievement award named in his honor. The 2011 honoree was a youngster of 86 years named Ed Bearss. Richard Nelson Current, the dean of Lincoln scholars, is 99.

Richard Nelson Current has been a lifelong student of LIncoln and the war. Photograph courtesy of Virginia Williams
Richard Nelson Current has been a lifelong student of LIncoln and the war. Photograph courtesy of Virginia Williams
Alas, the “great man,” as we call Dick Current, wasn’t up for the task. These days, he lives in a nursing facility in Massachusetts, where Marcia, a veteran healthcare administrator, watches over him like a combination Clara Barton and Michael DeBakey. He is so fragile that one of his sadly regular trips to the ER invariably results in broken bones. In recent months, he has had more difficulty than ever expressing the thoughts that still crowd his active mind. Attached to a ventilator, he can barely speak. A small smile—the kind his students and admirers always treasured—conveys what must be conveyed. Until this past autumn, he has somehow dictated his yearly message with all the old bite and cogency that marked his own luminous career in history. Not this time.

I write this not to enumerate maudlin details about the health challenges confronting a man approaching the century mark—but in celebration of a life brilliantly and unforgettably lived—and of the kind of grit that marked his scholarship, and marks his proud determination to endure. He faces no new crisis, no daunting milestone; I’ve just been thinking about him anew.

Dick Current spent a lifetime studying Lincoln and the Civil War—and educating several generations of followers. He taught at the universities of Wisconsin and Oxford. He lectured on American history in Europe, South America, Asia and even Antarctica. At his retirement he was Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. And he served as president of the Southern Historical Association.

Dick Current also produced brilliant books, including the final volume of J.G. Randall’s magisterial life of Lincoln. Their Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure, completed after Randall’s death in 1953, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize. Current’s other titles include Lincoln and the First Shot; Speaking of Lincoln: The Man and His Meaning for Our Times; and Lincoln’s Loyalists: Union Soldiers From the Confederacy. He punctured generations of myth about the Radical Republicans with Those Terrible Carpetbaggers. And he took on Gore Vidal and an entire generation of outdated scholarship in Arguing With Historians: Essays on the Historical and the Unhistorical.

How to describe the man’s reach? When a subject captured his imagination, he conquered it and made it his own. Interested in an obscure Wisconsin congressman named Philetus Sawyer, he wrote his life story. Fascinated by the development of the typewriter, he produced a book about the men who invented it. Remembering the language of his parents, he translated a dense Nor­wegian novel into English. Intrigued by Marcia’s fascination for the dancer Loie Fuller, he joined her to write the definitive biography.

For me the gem among all these treasures remains a 1958 book called The Lincoln Nobody Knows. Why? Two years after its publication, my fifth-grade class in Queens, New York, found itself faced one morning by a teacher literally bearing a hatful of names. Choose one, she instructed, go to the library upstairs, find a book, do research and write a biographical composition.

A biographical composition? A library book? Research? Concern mounting, I closed my eyes, dug into the hatful of crumpled papers, rummaged around and cautiously clasped one. Somehow—thank the heavens—I picked Lincoln. Somehow—more gratitude to the powers above—I soon found myself drawn to a black book jacket with bold white and yellow letters: The Lincoln Nobody Knows. There, for the very first time,

I fell under the spell of history’s most extraordinary character, brilliantly in­ter­preted by a gently opinionated hyp­notist: Lincoln the man of God, the
warrior, the merciful, the obstinate, the family man, the martyr. Or was he? “We need not be ashamed of what we have made of Lincoln,” Richard Current concluded one mesmerizing chapter. “In honoring him we honor ourselves.”

I’ve spent the last 50 years since studying Lincoln, and the last 25 writing books of my own. I will never be as influential as Dick Current, but no one can ever claim to be as influenced. Dick Current taught me that characters from the past have relevance for the future; that their lives could be told in a way that would both satisfy professional scholars and enchant precocious kids—for life.

In the years after I got to know the great man, I enjoyed precious few chances to appear at conferences with him. I generally found myself speechless in his presence (a rarity—ask anyone who knows me). He usually let others do the talking, then brought down the house with a pithy observation, plainly spoken, puncturing myths and devastating poseurs—a man of few words, but all of them meaningful. Speaking of meaningful, 12 years ago, Marcia and Dick Current found a spare first-edition copy of the book that changed my life, its original black dust jacket intact. The author signed it: “To my friend Harold Holzer—whose work is so beautifully making known the Lincoln nobody knows. Richard N. Current.” No book in my library is more treasured.

As I write, Dick Current is physically weak, but stronger in presence and influence than ever. This year’s Lincoln Forum Richard Nelson Current Award was presented without his annual blessing. Nothing is forever—except maybe Dick Current’s books, and his example. What he wrote of Lincoln in 1960 is equally true of him—50-plus years later: He has “a perpetual timeliness, an eternal relevance.”

In this age of declining history education, we drank a toast to him at the forum: May every 11-year-old student be blessed with a teacher bearing an intriguing hatful of names, and may every browser in a library discover his own Dick Current.

Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

One Response

  1. Charles A. Newell, Jr

    I was a student of Dr. Current’s in the 70 s at UNCG in the Master’s program in history. I took all the courses he taught and later became a high school history teacher and had him come and speak to one of my classes about the carpetbaggers.

    I have often thought used his wry wit in my classes and continue to read and reread many of his works. My most memorable moment was in his office one day when I was discussing a paper I was writing. He was smoking one of his great cigars when Hugh Sidey of Time magazine called and asked him if Nixon was justified in comparing himself to Lincoln and Dr Curren t said \they were both Republicans, beyond that I see no similarity\. I have missed him since he left Greensboro.


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