“Don’t ask me to memorize his speech.”

By Erin Carlson Mast

While reading a book of short stories, I came across a line about Lincoln–about understanding Lincoln’s humanity.  The narrator ends the preceding paragraph by saying, “Don’t try to teach me.  I’ll figure it out for myself.”  He next speaks of Daniel Boone, saying, “Don’t tell me.  I knew him.”  He then says:

“Lincoln?  A big fellow walking alone, looking at things as if he pitied them, a face like the face of man.  The whole countryside full of dead men, men he loved, and he himself alive.  Don’t ask me to memorize his speech.  I know all about it, the way he stood, the way the words came from his being.”

These lines are from Resurrection of a Life, written by William Saroyan in 1935.   And though Saroyan’s lines are not written about Lincoln’s time at the Cottage, his words are a remarkable reflection of Lincoln’s experience here–as if he knew him here.  When I read the line about walking alone, about Lincoln’s face being like the face of man, it reminded me of Whitman’s description of Lincoln’s face as he saw it on Lincoln’s daily commute.  The lines also made me think of a recollection by one of Lincoln’s colleagues who, seeing his haggard face one night encouraged him to take three weeks of rest.  Lincoln replied it would do him no good, that “my thoughts, my solicitude for this great country follow me where ever I go.”  When I read the next line, about all those who died while Lincoln lived, it reminded me of the story about Lincoln walking the cemetery by the Cottage, where Lincoln witnessed daily burials of Civil War dead.  But then I read the line about Lincoln’s speech, how the words came from Lincoln’s “being.”  Had the narrator been there with Lincoln at Gettysburg?  Perhaps he wasn’t there literally, but he understood Lincoln on a human level.  He saw Lincoln at a pivotal moment in time, as part of a continuum, as part of the American experience.  Memorizing the exact words seemed unimportant to him.  He was more concerned with the meaning behind those words.

Ms. Mast is the Curator at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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