Presidents Day: our best presidents are as close as the nearest biography

With biographies like Carl Sandburg's 'Lincoln,' Americans can learn about past presidents on any day of the year.

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    Carl Sandburg was thought an unlikely choice by some to chronicle the life of Abraham Lincoln, but his lyrical prose still makes his biography on Honest Abe a compelling read today.
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I was in the office of my banker, Adam, the other day when I noticed a copy of Carl Sandburg’s six-volume life of Lincoln lined up along the credenza.

People often decorate their offices and living rooms with old books, so with a wink across the desk, I asked Adam if the Sandburg series was just for show.

“I’ve always liked to read, and the Sandburg set is from my father,” Adam told me. “Sometimes, when I’m here late waiting for a client to show, I dip into Sandburg’s 'Lincoln' to pass the time.”

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The thought of a young executive leaving the world of mutual funds and annuities to travel with Honest Abe from the prairies to the White House heartened me. I wondered if we all might benefit by turning away from our cluttered desks, if only for a few moments, to revisit the words and deeds of the Great Emancipator.

With the arrival of another Presidents Day, perhaps now is as good a time as any to acknowledge our debt not only to Lincoln, but to Sandburg, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for the concluding volumes of his Lincoln biography. Sandburg, best known as a poet, seemed an unlikely biographer of the nation’s 16th president when he started the project in the 1920s.

“There were some critics who said at the time that a poet’s pen should not meddle in history,” Sandburg’s daughter, Paula Steichen, later recalled.

The poet comes through in many of the passages from Sandburg’s "Lincoln," which resonates with hymn-like clarity. Here’s Sandburg on the death of Lincoln’s mother:

“So the woman, Nancy Hanks, died, thirty-six years old, a pioneer sacrifice, with memories of monotonous, endless everyday chores, of mystic Bible verses read over and over for their promises, and with memories of blue wistful hills and a summer when the crabapple blossoms flamed white and she carried a boy-child into the world....“

Sandburg, who died in 1967 at age 89, wrote biography with the kind of flourish that can seem quaint to modern ears, but his basic sense of how to tell a good story is a reminder that even writers who aren’t professional historians also have something to contribute to presidential biography.

His "Lincoln," though perhaps little read today, is part of a larger tradition of presidential biography started by Washington Irving, the 19th-century writer who gained fame as the author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" before turning to a mammoth life of Washington. Then, as now, Americans depended on popular writers to chronicle their commanders-in-chief – a practice that continues today in the able hands of David McCullough, Richard Reeves, and others.

Thanks to Sandburg and his successors, we can connect with the lives of our presidents on Presidents Day, and every other day of the year.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate and a frequent essayist for national publications, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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