Sunday, February 8, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 263: Gideon Welles, The Giant Sufferer (#263)

Gideon Welles, “The Giant Sufferer” (1865/1960) from President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning:

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded his thoughts and experiences on the assassination of Lincoln; and while this was revised by him and by his son, a 1960 version of his memoirs is (supposed to be) close to the original. And that's what we have here in this new collection from the Library of America, entirely focused on this one event.

(Which, like the volumes on WWI poetry, seems like an interesting departure for them. I'm not sure I'd be interested in this book, but I know there are some Lincoln enthusiasts who would be.)

As for Welles's recollections, they are the sort that many people may recognize from their own brushes with history or any sort of trauma:
  • initial confusion and denial (the messenger isn't making any sense, there's no way that Lincoln and Seward could've been both attacked);
  • a mix of sharp memories ("I exchanged a few words in a whisper with Dr. V. Secretary Stanton who came almost simultaneously with me spoke in a louder tone.")...
  • ...and more vague perceptions ("Several surgeons were present, at least six, I should think more.");
  • and the ever-present ordinariness pressing in.
In Welles's account, that last part has to do with the struggle for political power, or at least the appearance of struggle and politicking. Did Stanton purposely not invite him to a meeting? Did he come late for real reasons or as part of a power play? Etc.

Still, if you're looking for an argument about the power of simple language to carry maximal emotional force, you could do worse than Welles's memory of Lincoln on his deathbed:

His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that his right eye began to swell and became discolored.

I mean, there's a moment of almost saintly sanctity: Lincoln looks even better now that he's been martyred. And then Welles punctures the moment with that swollen, discolored eye. There's an image for you.

[Note: I missed this last weekend, so I'm putting it up late, but backdating it, so I can find it more easily.]

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