Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lincoln and the Ages

Adam Gopnik has an "Annals of Biography" article in the current New Yorker, "Angels and Ages: Lincoln's Language and its Legacy." He examines the ongoing debate about whether Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's benediction over Lincoln was "Now he belongs to the ages" or "Now he belongs to the angels," while also reviewing a few of the recent Lincoln niche biographies and offering thoughts on a few Lincoln-related sites (the Soldiers' Home, the Petersen Boardinghouse).

It's a good piece, which I recommend. Gopnik's main question about Stanton's words is interesting, and he's done an excellent job trying to track the versions as far back as he can. In the end, of course, as Gopnik concludes:

"History is not an agreed-on fiction but what gets made in a crowded room; what is said isn’t what's heard, and what is heard isn’t what gets repeated. Civilization is an agreement to keep people from shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre, but the moments we call historical occur when there is a fire in a crowded theatre; and then we all try to remember afterward when we heard it, and if we ever really smelled smoke, and who went first, and what they said. The indeterminacy is built into the emotion of the moment. The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full."