Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mo’ on Poe

I picked up a book off my nightstand this evening, opened it and found that in researching Edgar Allen Poe for yesterday's article, I’d missed another reference to the writer - one in a Lincoln Prize winning book from a leading Lincoln scholar.

Douglas L. Wilson, of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in my longtime hometown of Galesburg (Ill.), writes of Poe in his book, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and The Power of Words. This Lincoln expert has long been one of my most reliable and helpful "go to" sources for all things Lincoln. I'd consulted one of his books, which didn't have a reference to Poe, but I totally missed this volume. I apologize for the oversight, Dr. Wilson.

Wilson on Poe
As Wilson notes, Lincoln was a prolific writer of newspaper articles, many of them anonymous. In one such article, Wilson writes, Lincoln’s “subject was a strange sequence of events involving the mysterious disappearance of a visitor to Springfield named Fisher.”

Wilson writes that Lincoln’s fascination with the case was:

… firmly centered on the nature of its intellectual challenge, its apparent defiance of rational solution. In this respect, [the article] bears a recognizable resemblance to something one might have read at the time in Edgar Allan Poe, Lincoln’s exact contemporary, and according to one report, his favorite American writer. In fact, Poe’s typically wording and stilted mode of expression may be in part responsible for similar qualities in Lincoln’s essay.

The work Wilson cited as claiming Poe was Lincoln’s favorite writer was an 1860 publication, "The Life of Abraham Lincoln: With Excerpts from His Speeches,” by J.Q. Howard. It seems that many of today’s Lincoln scholars believe now that Walt Whitman was Lincoln’s favorite author of his time.

Wilson’s point is well taken, however, that the influence of Poe’s work can be seen in this particular piece, one that Wilson believes may have been “evidence of a cautious literary debut … protected by a shield of anonymity in the case of failure or indifference.”

The lo’ down on Poe
One thing is certain. Poe’s life, though cut short even sooner than Lincoln’s, ran parallel to the president’s. Lincoln was a prolific reader. As we learned in one of the sources cited in my earlier article on Poe, Lincoln likely owned Poe’s work and is said to have read it. Poe’s work is powerful – and memorable. It can’t help but have left its mark on Lincoln, so mention of Poe in conjunction with the Lincoln Bicentennial is fitting and proper.

Excerpts from:

Wilson, Douglas L., Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, Vintage Books, New York, 2007.

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