Thursday, February 12, 2009
Touching Lincoln's Nose
Today is the two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
To commemorate the occasion, I have been reading some of the Lincoln books in my collection. One of the most recent -- and surely one of the best -- is THE LINCOLNS : A SCRAPBOOK LOOK AT ABRAHAM AND MARY by Candace Fleming, a photo-filled, highly-detailed history of the first couple and their world. Ms. Fleming was particularly well-suited to writing this volume, having been raised in Illinois where, according to the book’s introduction, “I often bicycled out to the old Lincoln place -- the farm where Abraham and his parents settled when they moved to the state back in 1830. I thought nothing of clambering over the rotting log cabin or exploring the crumbling root cellar.” Later she speaks of her school’s annual field trip to the state capital where “yet again I traipsed through the Lincoln home and filed through the Lincoln tomb. Encountering his bust outside the gravesite, I always rubbed his big bronze nose for good luck.”
She rubbed his NOSE?
As soon as I read that line I sat back in shock. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I heard a voice exhorting me not to touch Lincoln’s nose. It seemed to be a teacher’s voice. ...But it couldn’t be. I’d never been to Lincoln’s tomb on a field trip. In fact, I’ve never been there in my life! It wasn’t until the next day that I remembered. The teacher’s exhortation wasn’t something I’d heard but something I’d read -- and that memory had been stuck in my head for decades.
I finally tracked down this long-remembered anecdote in, of all places, Irene Hunt’s Newbery Award acceptance speech. Irene Hunt came to writing fairly late in life -- after many years as a school teacher in Illinois. Her first book, ACROSS FIVE APRILS, was named a Newbery Honor in 1965. Two years later she won the award for her sensitive and beautifully-written novel UP A ROAD SLOWLY. Ms. Hunt devoted her acceptance speech to discussing the importance of books in children’s lives. One of the stories she told involved taking a group of students on a field trip to Springfield:
Outside the tomb there is a great bronze bust of Lincoln corroded -- all except the nose -- by the elements until it is quite black. Thousands of school children have leaped up to touch that nose (for good luck, they say), and it has been rubbed until the bronze shows through, giving a grotesque appearance to that sad, magnificent face.
I spoke to the group I was taking to Springfield about the fact that though the gesture was neither illegal or wrong, it did show a lack of taste, a certain gracelessness and disrespect. But I was an adult preaching, and the efficacy of preaching against something perceived as fun is very slight. So I said no more and turned to Carl Sandburg.
During the week before our trip, I read many chapters from ABRAHAM LINCOLN : THE PRAIRIE YEARS. The children loved the book. They borrowed it and reread some of the chapters. They caught the heartbreak of Sandburg when he writes of Lincoln. Sometimes there were a few tears.
Ms. Hunt describes the bus trip to the state capital with students “as boisterous as any group of thirteen-year-olds” and the moment, at the end of the day, when they arrived at Lincoln’s tomb: “I was anxious as those children walked up the steps toward the entrance. There was the great bronze bust, there was the nose that thousands of other children had touched for good luck. But I need not have worried. Those kids marched straight past that bust, eyes ahead, faces very stern. Oh, I think a few hands may have itched a little, a few arm muscles may have twitched a bit, but the owners of those hands and arms were in control.” The author then spoke about a student -- “a typical boy who would rather have been found dead than polishing an apple" -- who hesitantly came to sit beside her on the bus ride home:
...he handed me a crumpled piece of paper which he had taken from his pocket. “I was reading this a while ago when we were at the tomb,” he told me almost sheepishly.
I recognized the writing almost immediately. He had a copied a paragraph from Sandburg’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN : THE WAR YEARS, a paragraph in which Sandburg describes the living death of the President at the moment the bullet entered his brain. It begins: “For Abraham Lincoln it was lights out, good night, farewell and a long farewell to the good earth and its trees, its enjoyable companions, and the Union of States and the world Family of Man he had loved.”
I was not able to speak when I handed the paper back to him. The boy seemed to feel he needed to explain. “I thought...I just had a feeling that when you stand at the tomb of Abraham Lincoln, you ought to have beautiful words to think about." After that explanation, he got back to a group of his peers as quickly as possible.
Irene Hunt concluded:
And so, you see, they can be reached, these youngsters who cause us so many anxious moments. There was no preaching here; only the kind of beauty which the name of Abraham Lincoln evokes for a writer like Sandburg. Great books do not have to preach. But they do speak to the conscience, the imagination and the heart of many a child. And they speak with very clear and forceful voices.
I first read Irene Hunt’s Newbery acceptance speech when I was a kid myself. Of course back then I was most interested in the whole “Lincoln’s nose” debate and wondered if I could have resisted leaping up to touch it as I passed by. Today I’m not so sure it even matters. I can see both sides of the issue. For Irene Hunt, not touching was the respectful and proper thing to do -- and this respect for Abraham Lincoln obviously inspired her. She ended up writing one of the truly great Newbery Honor Books -- a Civil War story in which a letter from President Lincoln serves as a balm to a family torn apart by that conflict. Then we have Candace Fleming, whose hands-on approach to history -- playing in the Lincoln farmyard and reaching out to rub the statue’s nose -- would also lead to a powerful book about our sixteenth president.
Today when I read Ms. Hunt’s speech, I am most moved by what she had to say about the transformative power of books and reading. And I think Abraham Lincoln himself would agree with her words. After all, it was President Lincoln who once said, "The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read."