Saturday, June 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 53: Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoi Holds Lincoln World’s Greatest Hero (#7)

Leo Tolstoy, "Tolstoi Holds Lincoln World’s Greatest Hero" (1909), as told to Count S. Stakelberg from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

An entire book devoted to what other people thought of Lincoln. It reminds me of the classic narcissist joke, "Enough about me, let's talk about you--what do you think of me?" Anyway, this article originally appeared in 1909 with the headline, "Great Russian Tells of Reverence for Lincoln Even Among Barbarians." I think we can all agree that that's a better title.

After a one paragraph frame (I went to Tolstoy to ask him about Lincoln), the rest is Tolstoy's thoughts and an anecdote. If you know Tolstoy, you can guess the thoughts: all other famous guys are all about war and stuff, but, like, Lincoln, he was all about love, you know? There's a great moment in Malcolm in the Middle (stay with me), I think, where a kid has to play Abe Lincoln in a school play and is freaking out. Come on, says the mom, everyone loves Abe Lincoln, to which the kid responds by noting all of Lincoln's lesser known issues, like suspending habeas corpus. The saintly, "Christ in miniature" view of Lincoln just doesn't seem realistic; though it is interesting that Tolstoy can look at a guy who pressed for war (and rightly so in my mind) and think "there's a guy who loves peace." Similarly, I may have to go see an eye doctor from all the rolling I was doing during Tolstoy's "it was god's plan for him to die young."

That said, the central anecdote here is rather hilarious: Tolstoy stops with some Muslims, who hate progress and change, but even they have heard of Lincoln and wish to hear more about how great he is. Although they already have a pretty clear idea of the guy: "He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses." I assume he was also last of his line and able to tame dragons, too.

There's also a bit that Tolstoy plays straight but which I think could be a great source of comedy: Tolstoy off-handedly notes that these barbarians could probably get a picture of Lincoln in town. So when Tolstoy leaves, one of them comes with him to town to get the picture, which Tolstoy "was now bound to secure at any price." I wonder if Tolstoy was thinking, "I was being polite!"

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