Did you know 2009 is not only the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, but also of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Darwin? Today, January 19, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth.
I went to several of my favorite Lincoln authors – or their books, actually – to see what they had to say about Lincoln and Poe.
Shenk on Lincoln and Poe
I first consulted Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy. I heard Shenk speak twice when he was in Peoria ( Ill.) last summer and I thought I’d remembered him mentioning that Lincoln read Poe. If anyone is an authority on Lincoln’s dark side, this is the guy. And as Shenk points out in his book, “Suffering and futility were pervasive themes in American literature of the early nineteenth century.”
I actually expected to find more references to Lincoln and Poe in Shenk’s work. Though he does refer to Poe and his gloomy work several times throughout the book, there is only one reference to Lincoln reading Poe. I’m finding this lack of much information connecting Lincoln to Poe’s work to be the case throughout my research.
Shenk writes of the early 1940s when Lincoln was serving as a lawyer, riding from town to town on the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois. It was during those evenings away from home, according to the Shenk, that Lincoln’s partner John Todd Stuart remembers Lincoln reading Poe’s “The Raven” over and over by candlelight.
Thomas on Lincoln and Poe
I then went to Benjamin Thomas’s 1953 biography, Abraham Lincoln. Though it’s more than half a century old, this succinct volume is still respected by several leading Lincoln scholars and was even recommended by one of them as the text for a high school class on Lincoln. If Thomas’s account is accurate, it may have been Quincy (Ill.) lawyer Andrew Johnston who first introduced Lincoln to Poe’s work.
According to Thomas, Lincoln had sent some of his own poems to Johnston. Johnston, in turn “sent Lincoln a parody of Poe’s ‘Raven,” in which an experience with a polecat replaced Poe’s conversation with his feathered midnight visitor.” Johnston apparently not only gave Lincoln “several hearty laughs” but also prompted him to seek out Poe’s poem just a year after it was written.
Burlingame on Lincoln and Poe
And finally, I consulted Michael Burlingame, whose two volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, is the largest work on Lincoln since Sandburg’s six-volume set and will likely reign as the definitive Lincoln biography long into the future.
According to Burlingame, Lincoln liked not only “The Raven,” but “also liked Poe’s short stories, notably ‘The Gold Bug’ and ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”
Special thanks to my Poe-authority
I’d be remiss, however, if I were not to give credit where credit is due for remembering Poe’s birthday so I could share it with you. A few weeks ago, when I told my friend Dr. Robert T. Rhode that I was doing a Lincoln blog, he reminded me that it was also Poe’s bicentennial. Rhode is one of several authorities on the 19th century who has served as a mentor to me. For his nurturing, sharing of knowledge and encouragement, I will always be grateful.
I know Rhode as an authority on steam powers and the owner of a really neat 1923 65-horsepower Case steam engine, which I’ve had the privilege to ride. Yet, he’s also an authority on Poe - teaching his works, writing about him and acting in more than two hundred productions as the poet. In 1988, Rhode performed as Poe for the Baltimore Poe Society, which named his one-person play the authorized stage version of Poe's life.
According to Rhode, the best Poe biography is Arthur Hobson Quinn’s 1941 Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, which, unfortunately, doesn’t even mention the Lincolns. Rhode cautions those researching Poe to beware of some online sources. He says the authoritative website is that of the Poe Society of Baltimore’s. Thanks, Dr. Rhode, for pointing me to the information showing:
- Lincoln owned an 1845 copy of the booklet that contained “The Raven.”
- A listing of articles by Poe scholar Burton R. Pollin, including one he wrote on polecat parody in the The University of Mississippi Studies in English in 1989 (#100).
After the bicentennial, please watch my blog for more information about Dr. Rhode. Not only is his work on the steam era and Walt Whitman relevant to the study of Lincoln, he’s also the author of some pretty nifty reference books for all students and writers. More on that later …
Excerpts and information taken from:
- Burlingame, Michael, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008.
- Rhode, Robert T., email correspondence, Dec. 2, 2008.
- Shenk, Joshua Wolf, Lincoln’s Melancholy, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2005.
- Thomas, Benjamin, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1953.