Friday, July 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 73: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln (#76)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Abraham Lincoln" (1863, -4) from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

(Quick note on the date: Stowe originally wrote this piece for the Chris­tian Watchman and Reflector in 1863 (I think); but the text here is from the more popular magazine The Living Age, from 1864. And if you're keeping track at home, the famous meeting between Stowe and Lincoln was in 1862--though we can't know for sure whether he said what I hope he said: "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" Alternately: "So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war." Like I said: we'll never know.)

Stowe provides a sort of campaign biography and tacit endorsement for Lincoln's reelection, crowning him both as a regular working man (facing a working man's war) who can speak to the average American. There's the typical things that one includes in this sort of thing: he rose from humble origins, he worked tirelessly, he's honest and moderate. Stowe's brilliant metaphor here is that Lincoln is wire strong: he will pull the nation through to the right end, even though he responds to pushes this way and that.

What Stowe adds to this is her deep religious belief (which is all over Uncle Tom's Cabin, as well as all over her family history). To Stowe, Lincoln isn't just an elected official--he's appointed by God. (It's a little awkward when she says that "God’s hand was upon him with a visible protection" when Lincoln avoided assassination earlier, since we all know how this story ends. Heck, even Lincoln had some idea: "“Whichever way it [the war] ends, I have the impression that I sha’n’t last long after it’s over.” Yeesh.) There's a lot of God talk in this piece, so much so that Stowe seems to find it necessary to note that Lincoln himself isn't as religious as all that.

The other interesting aspect that Stowe adds to this is her framing of the Civil War as a global struggle between labor and capital. And I'm not exactly adding those terms to make her sound like a Marxist or labor unionist. Listen to her break down the war and its wider import:
It is a war for a principle which concerns all mankind. It is THE war for the rights of the working classes of mankind, as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies. You can make nothing else of it. That is the reason why, like a shaft of light in the judgment-day, it has gone through all nations, dividing to the right and the left the multitudes. For us and our cause, all the common working classes of Europe—all that toil and sweat and are oppressed. Against us, all privileged classes, nobles, princes, bankers, and great manufacturers, and all who live at ease.
First, nice use of all-caps and italicization to get your point across. Second, oh my god, did you see how she lumped together two varieties of unelected aristocracies--the old world nobility and the new world industrial captains and bankers? This is the 1860s, which will see a growth in labor unionism and also a huge growth in anti-union activity. But we know which side Stowe is on--and we know which side she thinks you should be on.

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