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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 02:14 am

Lincoln in bronze

A guide to sculptures in the Land of Lincoln

“Abstract Lincoln,” outside Lincoln Library.
Carl Volkmann, historian and retired director of Springfield’s Lincoln (public) Library, has meticulously researched and written a welcome book to add to our shelf of Lincolniana. Or let’s say no shelf, but at $10 each, one for the coffee table, one for the car.

The format is uniform, and the statues are restricted in location to Illinois. Giving each a page, Volkmann starts at the top of the state with “Lincoln the Debater” in Freeport, and works his way to the foot, “Lincoln-Douglas Debate,” in Jonesboro. There is quite a large bulge at Springfield, the second largest, Bloomington. Rather than overview the whole book, here is a typical page, “Lincoln the Student.” An excellent photograph fills a fourth of the page. Lincoln, a seated young man in shirtsleeves, is quietly studying a large book in his lap.

Immediate data tell us this is a bronze statue by Robert Merrill Gage, 1892-1981, that it was dedicated May 27, 1961, and is located at Lincoln College, Lincoln, Ill. Lastly, GPS coordinates are thoughtfully added. A diminutive Illinois map places a star on the location.

The following text informs us that Lincoln is the only town named for Abraham Lincoln before his presidency, that Lincoln surveyed several small towns in the area, and was in on Lincoln’s naming ceremony: “He picked up a watermelon from a nearby wagon, cut it open with a pocket knife, squeezed juice on the ground, and christened the town.” He established Logan as a county, and regularly rode the judicial circuit it was part of.

Lincoln College, established by Presbyterian Church members in 1865, is the only institution named for Lincoln during his presidency. Volkmann gives a brief history of the college, and says that the 15th college president, Raymond Dooley, “a recognized Lincoln scholar and educator in the study of Abraham Lincoln,” as well as president of the state historical society for a term, asked famed sculptor Robert Merrill Gage to create an appropriate statue for the campus.

Gage’s history as a sculptor is then given. He studied for two years under Gutzon Borglum in New York City but passed up a chance to help his mentor carve the famed presidential faces on Mount Rushmore because he did not want to be “in Borglum’s shadow.” He studied in Paris, taught at the Kansas City Art Institute, and headed the sculpture department at the University of Southern California for many years. Gage’s prizes are listed, and his film, The Face of Lincoln, won an Academy Award for best short subject in 1955.

“Abstract Lincoln,” outside Lincoln Library.

There are details of the 1961 dedication ceremony — the sculptor seemed not to be present, though his granddaughter unveiled the sculpture — and the text ends with the legend on the marble base of the statue, appropriate for a college campus: ”I Shall Prepare Myself — Someday My Chance Will Come.”

Though I’ve now lived near Lincoln, Ill., for many years, I’ve never visited Lincoln College. I intend to, soon, to see the gentle, scholarly Gage statue.

Of Illinois statues of personal acquaintance, my favorite is “Abstract Lincoln” which startles visitors to Springfield’s Lincoln Library. Volkmann does not slight it here, and the controversy about its bizarre nature is included. Dr. Philip Kendall, formerly of Sangamon State University, says it is the only statue of Lincoln disguised as Oz’s tin man. I love it not only for its unusualness, but because I am always symbolically reminded that within that “Tinman-Lincoln” beats a human, compassionate heart.

There are a few pages of Lincoln busts, including the one we all rub the nose of, and a few more statues not described, plus some lighthearted pages of “joke” Lincolns, and a mention of one — unfortunately not pictured — made totally of sweet gum balls. I also doubt that Volkmann knows that SSU artist Mauri Formigoni and her students once made a large portrait entirely of toast — but that wouldn’t count, it’s not a sculpture. Lincoln would have loved it.

This book could be a dry reference, but Volkmann makes each page fascinating. I left my copy with a friend in Vermont, who called to thank me and talk about the book. He’d read half of it already, taking time off from fishing on a beautiful day. I can’t think of a better recommend!

Lincoln in Sculpture, by Carl Volkmann. The Illinois State Historical Society, 2009, 52 pp.


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