Saturday, August 8, 2009

Poet paints lyrical Lincoln portrait

Do you remember when you were little and you cherished that time with a favorite bedtime story, not only because of the tale, but also because of the time alone with the loved one who told it?

Do you ever have that feeling still? You cherish every page of a book you’re reading and you don’t want it to end – either because of the story, the characters, or the way the author paints word pictures upon each page and draws you in.

I had that feeling recently.

Before Lincoln’s 200th birthday in February, I began a book, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein. I was moved by Epstein’s lyrical style and reminded almost immediately of the work of an earlier Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg.

Written as only a poet can
Like Sandburg (who, by the way, is from my hometown), Epstein is a poet. Believe me, this poet’s ability to weave words, craft colorful character cameos and draw dramatic dioramas places his presidential portrait on a plane with few others.

Because of this, on one hand, I didn’t want to put the book down from the first day I opened it; yet, on the other, I never wanted to have to stop reading it. Due to other demands on my time, I was lucky to have Epstein’s words with me for a very long time.

Portrait became not my bedtime story, but my lunch time treat. On weekdays when I didn’t have other plans or commitments, I’d go to my van, push the seat back from the steering wheel and spend my lunch hour with the Lincolns, viewing them through Epstein’s eyepiece. I looked forward to the time alone – with the President, Mrs. Lincoln, Epstein and his cast of characters.

I finished the tome today, and I hope what I have to share will inspire you to take a look at this tale, too.

Why this book stands alone

The story Epstein tells is the same one we’ve heard time and again. Lincoln meets Mary, dumps Mary, marries Mary. They have two sons, one dies. They have two more, another dies – this time in the White House. Lincoln the lawyer becomes Lincoln the legislator, then Lincoln the President. They move to the White House, where Mary overspends on her wardrobe and “flub dubs for that damned old house,” while Union soldiers do without the essentials they need. The South surrenders and days later John Wilkes Booth snuffs out the light of the Great Emancipator.

Same old story, right? Why would it be different this time than the many other times we’ve read it? I like to think one reason is because, with a poet’s insight and sensitivity, Epstein shows us a different Abraham and Mary.

He shows us Abraham as a father who has a love for his country and compassion for its people as powerful as for his tag-a-log buddy, Tad. Epstein also shows us the Mary others fail to, a woman who loved her husband, loved her children and suffered in ways few can understand – and he does it with a caring and compassion unparalleled in other works.

Many historians have taken Mary for face value – focusing on all the obvious faults manifested through her mental state and the difficulty it caused in her relationships. Others have painted her a victim, nearly glorifying her. Yet with Epstein, it’s almost as if he’s on the inside looking out, feeling her pain, sensing her rage and understanding her love. I like to think the portrait he paints is more balanced, homing in on the good, but not dusting away the bad as if it never happened.

He shows us a marriage that endured – through it all, until death came between them. Appropriately enough, Epstein’s story stops there.

A taste of the poet’s imagery
Throughout the book, Epstein’s words worked together to pull me in and keep me coming back, but I have to share just a couple of my favorite lines to give you a taste, too.

You may be familiar with James Shields, the man Lincoln was set to duel in the early days of his relationship with Mary. Epstein’s introduction of Shields in the book will always be one of my favorite passages.

James Shields was a short man, with a square jaw, jutting chin, and deep-set eyes under a broad brow. Nevertheless, he got one’s attention when he walked into a room, limping slightly, pressing on as if against a headwind on the deck of a ship.

The passage above is just the beginning of Epstein’s colorful description of the Irishman who came by seafaring vessel from Belfast as a youngster. You’ll find the continued imagery which makes this my favorite when you turn to page 37 in the book.

Epstein’s work will endure
In this volume, just like in those familiar bedtime stories, I knew the characters, I was touched by the beginning, and the ending was as sad this time as it was the first time I heard it.

Yet, Epstein’s portrait of the Lincoln marriage is crafted so that it sheds light on those corners of the image where the sun rarely reaches. You know how Thomas Kinkade can make a painting look as if the light is glowing right through the canvas? Epstein gets this effect with his words. In so doing, we see the marriage, the President and Mrs. Lincoln as never before.

The Lincolns’ marriage may have been cut short on that fateful day in 1865, but Epstein’s panorama of it will bond to the walls of his readers’ memory long after the last page is turned, allowing the legacy to live on.

As for me, I’m thinking it may be a very long time before another luncheon dessert satisfies me like this one.
© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.

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