Readers’ Forum-Where the Lines Blur

Dr. Jessie Fields

    The novel I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn adds to the literature and historical record of Lincoln’s life, layers of compassion, intimate detail, beauty and depth. 

I was particularly moved by Charyn’s exploration of Lincoln’s relationship wwith  his wife Mary Todd, with the soldiers who fought in the war and with African Americans.

The novel carries us into the deep sorrow of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln at the death of their son Willie and the enormous suffering, pain and death that occurred during the Civil War. Lincoln, shortly after Willie’s death, walks out of the White House for relief and gets a carriage ride to the Patent Office by a group of intoxicated Union soldiers who almost run him over. The Patent Office, like so many buildings in Washington at the time, had been transformed into a military hospital.  Walt Whitman worked as a nurse during the Civil War and served in the wards at the Patent Office, he wrote of the “curious scene” there. Here is Lincoln describing it in I Am Abraham.
So we went out upon these curious wards, which consisted of a narrow passage between two mountainous glass cases packed with miniature models of inventions patented at the Patent Office.   (Page 269)
 
Then a murmur broke through the silence of the ward-not the tick of a telegraph, or the flutter of wings, but that peculiar honey of the human voice when it didn’t rise up in anger. And I realized where all the lady nurses had gone; they hadn’t abandoned the hospital clinic. They stood at the end of the ward in their gray and green garb, with hymn books in their hands; accompanying them was another nurse with an accordion, and a little choral of convalescent soldiers who’d climbed out of their sick beds to sing with the nurses.”  (page 271)
Tears already filled my eyes as I glanced below at the hymn:
“It came upon the midnight clear
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold…
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!”
             

In the novel we learn about Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who had worked for the wife of Jefferson Davis before Keckly came to the Lincoln White House and became the “confident and couturiere” of Mary Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckly is very close to the Lincoln family and especially to Mary and their son Tad who had a speech impediment and called her “Yip”. In a telling interaction with the President about the death of her son in the war Keckly says, “It wasn’t a sacrifice, Mr. President. If I had been younger I would have disguised myself as a man and joined his regiment. I wouldn’t have fallen in his place. That would have rubbed out the dignity of his death. He had the honor of fighting for his country, Mr. Lincoln, even if that country couldn’t recognize the worth of who he was…”. (page 214)

That steadfast determination to be full and equal participants in our nation’s democracy continues with us today.

Jessie Fields is a physician in Harlem and a founder of the NYC Independence Party. She serves on boards of Open Primaries and the All Stars Project.

 

Reminder

P4P Conference Call

With Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

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