History is one of my favorite subjects. Reading it, however, occasionally fills me with feelings of frustration and dread. For instance, I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s new biography of Abraham Lincoln, And There Was Light. I enjoy Meacham’s writing, and the book, with its focus on Lincoln’s moral character and his and the country’s relationship with slavery, is a unique approach to Lincoln. But I can’t help reading it with an ever increasing feeling of dread, knowing what is coming at the end.
I’ve read two other biographies of Lincoln: Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In both of those cases, I also read, fascinated, and yet gripped by the dread of knowing how it would end in tragedy for Lincoln on an evening of respite at Ford’s Theater.
Of all of the presidential biographies I’ve read, Lincoln comes across as the the most somber of characters. Perhaps it was the time he was living in, but that somberness of character gives his life story a kind of inevitability. Even with all of his wit and cheer, that darkness comes through the pages of every biography I’ve read of Lincoln.
Reading history–a Lincoln biography for instance–is one way to illustrate how terrible it would be to have that superpower of knowing the future before it happens. The dread I feel reading about Lincoln is the dread of the knowledge of certain loss. It permeates everything about Lincoln. Several years ago, Kelly and I went to a performance of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” It was a wonderful performance, and I would have thoroughly enjoyed it, if not for the feeling of dread I had through the entire play. For the theater in which we saw the show was none other than Ford’s Theater, and I couldn’t help but thinking that it was during a performance much like this one, that Booth shot Lincoln. Ever since, it has seemed odd to me that Ford’s Theater is an attraction that charges money for tours of the place where Lincoln was assassinated.
Reading history transports us back to the time of the subject about which we are reading, but we are transported there with all of the knowledge we have in the present. This can make history a frustration subject to read from time to time. Back in March when I was reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I couldn’t help but be frustrated that the German people couldn’t see what was happening right before their eyes. Reading Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe back in 2008, I recall being frustated by Einstein’s early failures, impatient because I knew he would ultimately be successful. When I read the first volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, I was frustrated by the early setbacks for the armies of the north in places like Bull Run, knowing that, despite those setbacks, they would ultimately be victorious.
And yet, despite the frustration and the dread, I continue to love reading history. Its value, both in terms of the human drama and the lessons I take from it, far outweigh the emotional struggle I sometimes find myself in while reading it. Indeed, on the horizon is another biography of Lincoln that I plan on reading, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds. That feeling of dread will be there, no doubt, but learning experience is worth that pain.
Written on October 23, 2022.
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