Paul Greenberg

The rest is history and, beyond history, myth. In the treasure trove called the Federal Writers Project in Washington, one section is devoted to the recollections of former slaves who were interviewed during the 1930s. Again and again, a similar legend surfaces. Here is how it was told by Fanny Burdock of Valdosta, Georgia, aged 91 at the time the interview was conducted:

"We been picking in the field when my brother he point to the road and then we see Marse Abe coming all dusty and on foot. We run right to the fence and had the oak bucket and the dipper. When he draw up to us, he so tall, black eyes so sad. Didn't say not one word, just looked hard at all us, every one us crying. We give him nice cool water from the dipper. Then he nodded and set off and we just stood there till he get to being dust then nothing. After, didn't our owner or nobody credit it, but me and all my kin, we knowed, I still got the dipper to prove it."

The power of the story lies precisely in that it could not have happened in any realm save that of the spirit. The proof that Abe Lincoln came walking down some dusty road in Georgia, or Alabama, or Louisiana is right there in the dipper, all right - as in the Great Dipper, the Drinkin' Gourd that slaves followed to the North Star and freedom. Symbol upon symbol.

In this story is the very definition of myth: a truth greater than fact. Fanny Burdock's tale still moves and holds us. It rings true, exciting an involuntary cry of affirmation: Ye-es!

In his new book, "Land of Lincoln," Andrew Ferguson follows the old Lincoln Heritage Trail through Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana. In keeping with the spirit of the trivialized times, he records the Disneyfication of Lincoln's image. The writer describes a convention of Lincoln impersonators; he writes of "historians" who recast Lincoln in their own ideological image; he gives example after example of the general debasement and exploitation of Lincoln's highly malleable image. And yet, and yet, even among the trivializers there is an almost sacred respect for the enduring Lincoln they exploit.

Nor does the myth shape only Americans. At Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, where Vachel Lindsay once envisioned Lincoln walking at midnight, the author encounters one Henri Dubin, aged survivor of a European concentration camp, who is laying a wreath on Lincoln's grave. In broken English, the old man explains that, at the hardest, the most demeaning, time of his life, he was visited in the camp by President Lincoln, who told him not to lose hope, that all men are created equal.

It is not only Americans who dream of Abraham Lincoln. It is not only Americans who yet dream of freedom.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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