Saturday, July 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 74: Frederick Douglass, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln (#162)

Frederick Douglass, "Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln" (1886) from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

Confession: I have a hard time reading these reminiscences about Lincoln without simultaneously tearing up and rolling my eyes. Tearing up because, goddamn, everything about Lincoln just makes him sound so good--a man with ideals who was willing to be practical, a serious man who could tell a joke, a literate man who could talk to ordinary people. And at the same time, rolling my eyes because, well, do we ever hear the bad things about him?

Now, we're not going to hear anything bad from Frederick Douglass post-assassination, especially considering the betrayal of the African-American population by the Republicans in 1876. (That's when Reconstruction ended and the South was basically ceded to white power. Have you seen the "reading test" that Louisiana made to prevent blacks from voting?)

Pretty much all we're going to hear from Douglass is how Lincoln was either on the side of the angels or secretly on the side of the angels. So when Douglass tells Lincoln how black soldiers should be treated, Lincoln basically notes that some prejudice will exist now, but there will be equality in the future. Douglass's little trick here is to summarize Lincoln when he's being pragmatic ("racism, what're you going do, amirite?") and quote him when he's being idealistic.

(We also hear a pretty fun joke about how tall and awkward Lincoln is:
On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome.
Note that Douglass doesn't extend the joke in any moral area--tall people are lazy, for instance--but just lets the tallness speak for itself, until Lincoln becomes a very tall but welcoming figure.)

All this rah-rah-Lincoln is nicely balanced by the LoA's page introducing this piece. They note how Lincoln and Douglass had several differences over the years, especially at the beginning; and the writer goes through several points where Douglass movingly disagrees with Lincoln's position. Can we get more of that, please?

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