Abraham Lincoln’s “Nostalgia”
© Richard Wightman Fox 2015
In Lincoln’s day, “nostalgia” meant something different than it does today. Then it was a rarely heard medical word. Doctors used “nostalgia” to describe a debilitating, even life-threatening, form of homesickness, one afflicting soldiers most of all. As far as we know, Lincoln, like most people, never used the term.
Only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did “nostalgia” evolve into the commonly used word we know today: a remembrance of earlier times that feels somewhat sorrowful, somewhat sweet.
Historians have shown that wistful longing for the bygone world of earlier generations became a defining feature of modern society. Nostalgia for rural rhythms and the old family hearth helped modern Americans and Europeans adjust to the industrial time clock and the novel pressures of urban living.
Popular fiction and Hollywood films spread the nostalgic frame of mind with 20th century mega-hits from The Wizard of Oz to Gone With the Wind. “There’s no place like home” applied as much to the vanished plantation culture of Tara as it did to the struggling free-labor homesteads of Kansas.
Lincoln’s generation didn’t employ the word “nostalgia,” but many pined for their ever-so-humble “Home, Sweet Home,” one of the most popular songs of the Civil War. Union prisoners detained at Libby Prison in Richmond sang it regularly. “Auld Lang Syne” was another staple of the day: a Union band played it at Appomattox as Grant made his way to the McLean home to accept Lee’s surrender.
The president’s own favorite nostalgic song may have been “Dixie”: “one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he told a crowd outside the White House on April 10, 1865. He asked a band to play it, quipping that the Confederate anthem had once again become national property. (It had been widely played in the North before the war.)
Lincoln’s cohort of Americans loved the sentimental evocation of olden times just as much as their descendants did. The difference was that later generations gradually realized, as Lincoln and his peers did not, that the vibrant culture of small-town, pre-industrial America had come to an end.
If Lincoln didn’t speak of “nostalgia,” he still produced a remarkable poem in the mid-1840s that captured its most essential element: the joining of sorrow and satisfaction in a remembrance of the past. Yet this aspiring poet dispensed with the pious reverence for “home” that marked the wistful songs and poems of his own day as much as it did the later attitude of “nostalgia.”
In 1844, at age 35, Lincoln made a return visit to Spencer County, Indiana, where he’d grown from a lad of seven to a man of 21. The experience of returning home had put him into a “poetizing mood,” he later wrote, despite the “unpoetical” character of this Hoosier “neighborhood.”
In 1845 and 1846, he produced twenty-four four-line stanzas to express his sentiments about “home”-- “though,” he conceded, “whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question.”
His first stanza hit at the heart of nostalgia: its paradoxical blend of emotions. (This is the original text, as given in Roy Basler’s Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 1, pp. 367ff. A slightly different version, produced either by Lincoln or his Illinois friend Andrew Johnston, appears on pp. 378, 385ff. of Basler.)
My childhood-home I see again,
And gladden with the view;
And still, as mem’ries crowd my brain,
There’s sadness in it too.
The gladness in his memory, according to the rest of the poem, has nothing to do with remembering his family life or good times with friends or neighbors. It concerns the strange satisfaction that comes from confronting the bleak realities of rural life, perhaps of human life itself. The verses recount some very unpleasant facts picked up on his 1844 trip, such as the deaths of “half” of his childhood friends.
I hear the lone survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms;
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.
The most unpleasant fact of all was the lingering insanity of his schoolmate Matthew Gentry, who had lost his mind at age 19 (when Lincoln was 16). Twelve of the poem’s twenty-four stanzas concern the madness of Matthew, son of the richest man in the region.
Poor Matthew! I have ne'er forgot
When first with maddened will,
Yourself you maimed, your father fought,
And mother strove to kill…
And when at length, tho' drear and long,
Time soothed your fiercer woes--
How plaintively your mournful song,
Upon the still night rose.
I've heard it oft, as if I dreamed,
Far-distant, sweet, and lone;
The funeral dirge, it ever seemed
Of reason dead and gone.
To drink it’s [sic] strains, I've stole away,
All silently and still,
Ere yet the rising god of day
Had streaked the Eastern hill.
Air held his breath; the trees all still
Seemed sorr’wing angels round.
Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell
Upon the list’ning ground.
Here Lincoln remembers, in his youth, prowling the landscape in the dim light of dawn to savor Matthew’s inadvertent sorrow song, his funeral dirge for his right mind. Nature itself has absorbed Matthew’s suffering. “Air held his breath,” Lincoln writes, in his richest poetic phrase. The atmosphere is laden with Matthew’s lament, his song a melancholic “air” in its own right.
Lincoln’s remembering of Matthew contains sorrow, but it’s enlivening too. Finding poetic words to voice the memory lets Lincoln control his sadness. He realizes that the act of writing provides solace and hope. Art can help relieve his own torment over the suddenness of death and the fragility of reason. The poem stands as a secular prayer of sorts, an appeal for the preservation of life and sanity.
At this moment in his life, poetry offered him a comfort that religion or theology could not. “My Childhood-home I See Again” reveals a Lincoln buoyed up by a steely and stoic faith, poised to embark on his successful 1846 Congressional “canvass” against Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright.
Boston engraver Louis Prang made this chromolithograph of Eastman Johnson’s 1868 oil painting “The Boy Lincoln.” The image is commonly called “The Boyhood of Lincoln,” underscoring his continuous striving for self-improvement as a youth. It gives his childhood a tranquil glow, quite unlike his personal recollection of it.
Credit:Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division