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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

§ 13. The Eclipse of the Winter of 1860–61

Then, in the later winter, between his determination of the new policy and his inauguration, came the eclipse. All the questions roused in the past by his seasons of shadow, recur. Was it superstition? Was it mystical premonition? Was there something here akin to those periods of intense gloom that overtook the Puritans of the seventeenth century? In a few respects there are points of likeness between Lincoln and Cromwell. In most respects, the two men are widely dissimilar. But in their susceptibility to periodic and inexplicable overshadowing they are alike. With Cromwell, besides his mysticism, there was a definite, an appalling dogma. Though Lincoln did not carry the weight of Cromwell’s dogma, perhaps the essential thing was the same in both—the overwhelming, encompassing sense that, God being just and our Father, human suffering must somehow be the consequence of our human sins. Endow Cromwell with Lincoln’s power of expression, and we can imagine him in one of his grand moments writing that piece of superb humility, the Fast Day Proclamation. Again, was it superstition, was it premonition, that created in Lincoln, as he faced toward Washington, a personal unhappiness? No recollection of Lincoln is more singular than one preserved by his law partner with regard to this period of eclipse. He tells of Lincoln’s insistence that their sign should continue to hang over the office door; of his sad eagerness to have everyone understand that his departure was not final; of his reiteration that some day he would come back, that his business would be resumed in the plain old office just as if nothing had happened.

Lincoln was so absolutely the reverse of the rhetorician that when he had nothing to say he could not cover up his emptiness with a lacquer of images. Never his the florid vacuousness of the popular orators of his day. When his vision deserted him, his style deserted him. It is confidently asserted that he never was able to press a law case unless he wholly believed in it. Strong evidence for the truth of the tradition is the obedience of his style to the same law. It behaved in this way, the eclipse being still upon him, when he was subjected to the misfortune of having to speak out of the shadow, in February, 1861, on his way to the inauguration. He could not escape this misfortune. The notions of the time required the President-elect to talk all the way from his home to the White House. This group of speeches forms an interlude in Lincoln’s development so strange that the most psychological biographer might well hesitate to attack its problem. As statecraft the speeches were ruinously inopportune. Their matter was a fatuous assurance to the country that the crisis was not really acute. As literature, his utterances have little character. The force, the courage, the confident note of the second manner had left him. His partisans were appalled. One of the most sincere among them wrote angrily “Lincoln is a Simple Susan.”