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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXII. Lincoln

§ 11. Second Period of Maturity

Another period in Lincoln’s literary life extends from his return to politics to the First Inaugural. Of all parts of his personal experience it is the most problematic. At its opening there rises the question why he returned to politics. Was there a crisis of some sort about 1855 as, surely, there was about 1849? His official biographers are unsatisfying. Their Lincoln is exasperatingly conventional—always the saint and the hero, as saint-heroes were conceived by the average American in the days when it was a supreme virtue to be “self-made.” That there was some sort of failure of courage in the Lincoln who gave up politics in 1849 is of course too much for official biography to be expected to consider. But it might perceive something besides pure devotion to the public weal in Lincoln’s return. That this successful provincial lawyer who had made a name for conscientiousness should be deeply stirred when politics took a turn that seemed to him wicked, was of course quite what one would expect. And yet, was the Lincoln who returned to the political arena the same who had withdrawn from it? Was there not power in him in 1855 that was not in him in 1849? May it not be that he had fled from his ambition in an excess of self-distrust, just as in his love affair doubt of himself had led him for a time to forsake what he most desired? And may not the new strength that had come to him have revived the old ambition, blended it with his zeal for service, and thus in a less explicit way than his biographers would have us think, faced him back toward politics. Be that as it may, his literary power, which took a bound forward in the excitement following the Nebraska Bill, holds itself at a high level for several years, and then suddenly enters into eclipse.