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Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010 07:04 am

Someone from outside

Springfield’s tradition of Lincoln Scholarship

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ILLUSTRATION BY PATTERSON CLARK/MCT
“One thing I don’t like, and Springfield don’t like, is someone to come in from outside and tell us about Lincoln.” That was the late Murray Hanes, talking as only Hanes could talk, to the late A.J. Liebling during a 1950 interview in Hanes’s office in the late downtown Springfield. Hanes was one of old Springfield’s self-appointed Swiss Guards, pledged to protect Lincoln’s reputation against character assassins wielding pens.

Mr. Hanes notwithstanding, only one Springfield man from inside has told the world much about Lincoln — William Herndon, Lincoln’s longtime law partner and confidante. Lincoln’s Billy wrote — “compiled” might be a better word — a life of Lincoln that, while unreliable in its conclusions, was rich in facts, and subsequent authors of more sober judgment have found it a treasure chest.

Only a few Springfieldians have turned Lincoln into biographies, but Lincoln has turned quite a few non-Springfieldians into biographers. Beginning in the 1920s, the new Abraham Lincoln Association hired a succession of executive secretaries as researchers who made names for themselves as Lincoln men.

The first was Ohioan Paul Angle, who later served as both director of the Illinois State Historical Library and secretary of the Illinois State Historical Society. While Angle never essayed a full-length narrative biography of Lincoln, he did contrive to write one indirectly in the form of a biography of his city — Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln’s Springfield, 1821-1865. Angle’s successor was Benjamin Thomas, author of Lincoln: A Biography, which was for many years honored as the best one-volume biography of Lincoln; as an Easterner (New Jersey), Thomas was from as far outside as a man could get and still be allowed to enter the Sangamo Club through the front door. Roy Basler, who headed the editorial staff that produced The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, came to Springfield from the South by way of Columbia University.

Lincoln scholarship gradually ceased to be regarded as a private passion of the collector and the gentleman scholar and was taken up by the State of Illinois as a public responsibility. The state historical library had been established in 1889 to collect the written history of Illinois, which in spite of impressions to the contrary did not begin in 1809 and end in 1865. As it was the only plausible public repository for the bushels of Lincolniana that then still cluttered the attics and closets of patriotic Illinoisans, the ISHL has gradually been transformed into a Lincoln library.

The result has been that the library’s modern directors have tended to be — or were obliged to become — Lincoln scholars. In addition to Angle, notable alums include Jay Monaghan, Harry Pratt and James T. Hickey. Beginning in the 1970s they have been joined on the shelf by Lincoln men (as to date they have been all men) from the faculty of Sangamon State University and its successor institution. They include Cullom Davis, former president of the ALA and director and senior editor of the Lincoln Legal Papers, and Phillip Paludan, the first occupant of the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, whose 1994 book, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, won the prestigious Lincoln Prize.

Add to that roster Dr. Michael Burlingame, who will be invested in the Lynn chair on Feb. 11 and whose two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life is widely praised as the definitive biography. He has been in town since last fall, and will have learned by now that Springfield expects both more and less of its Lincoln scholars than it used to. Paul Angle majored in history in college, but would later confess that he had “no passionate interest in the subject,” and during his graduate year he read little history, preferring classic English and American novels instead. When Dr. Burlingame came to town, in contrast, he had in his suitcase a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, earned under master David Herbert Donald, an employment credential as unimpeachable as a letter from Bill Cellini was a few years ago.

While we expect more in the way of credentials of our Lincoln scholars, we expect less of them in work. Angle wrote that he spent most of his first two or three summers on the job herding visiting schoolchildren to the Lincoln home and the Lincoln tomb. Burlingame will have to herd kids through the Lincoln home only metaphorically, as he acquaints his students with his Mary Todd, whom he (echoing Herndon) depicts as a shrew if not a she-devil.

That interpretation of the Lincolns’ marriage, by the way, echoes Herndon’s from the 1880s. One should not thus conclude that Springfield didn’t need someone to come in from outside and tell it about Lincoln after all. Burlingame’s biography is to Herndon’s Lincoln as the wise professor is to the bright but bumbling sophomore. Rather than resent being told about Lincoln by someone from outside, Springfield should welcome Dr. Burlingame to the inside. It might learn something.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.
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