Wednesday, October 18, 2006

At times

when I am reading a ton of stuff for fun/intellectual play I often guiltily find the issues of the TLS and the New York Review of Books piling up unread; it's when I'm too busy to have non-work-related book-reading (i.e. the last six weeks, it's making me slightly crazy and actually I just picked up the two plays I need to read for a discussion group tomorrow & realized that after having already today written a book review and taken care of edits on another and lectured on Tom Jones and held office hours and had various important meetings with students really and actually from dawn till dusk my brain was going to totally bust if I tried to read anything to do with the eighteenth century and I am just going to have to give the evening over to calm mental relaxation preferably involving a bit of blogging and a novel with supernatural creatures of some kind and take the plays up again in the morning tomorrow when I will have been in theory mentally refreshed by sleep) that they come to seem such a godsend. Intellectual stimulation in small doses, also conveniently able to lie flat on the table in front of me while I eat my dinner!

So I have been avidly consuming the more literary or otherwise interesting-to-me-and-not-policyish end of stuff in the NYRB. Last week (no point listing everything, lots of good things) there was Luc Sante on H. P. Lovecraft (available online to non-subscribers) and a very good essay about Proust by Graham Robb (not sure who that link will work for--let me know if it gets you through without a Columbia ID?--but it is a great relief that the Columbia library's finally sorted out the electronic subscription, I have been grumbling for ages on principle about the unreasonableness of having to pay an additional sum for an electronic subscription, it is what I will not do...) and also a very striking essay by Istvan Deak about police informers in Communist Hungary; this week Joyce Carol Oates on Margaret Atwood (no subscription required) and a great piece by Darryl Pinckney about Colson Whitehead's latest novel Apex Hides the Hurt (not sure about the link's accessibility again, but I especially liked this because I am a fan of both guys' writing and it's nice to see the one appreciating the other).

So all of this is well and good. But really the point of this (I hope uncharacteristically) rambling and roundabout and altogether-more-confessional-than-usual entry is to say something quite different. There is the most wonderful thing published in two parts over these two issues, and if you only read one thing this whole year in the New York Review of Books this is what it must be.

It's David Bromwich on Lincoln, and it would be good if they published some version of it in a little chapbook, it is a very wise and compelling piece of writing and I would buy several copies for Xmas presents. (Oh dear, that is a frivolous way of expressing it, but I really do feel the need to press this text on everyone I know.)

Here's part one, which opens with these wonderful and Hazlitt-tinctured yet deeply Bromwichian sentences (it is a matter of style and of substance, there's both a ring in the words and a particular sidewaysness in the insight that are characteristic of his mode of thinking, like a maxim from La Rochefoucauld made more supple and humanized by the workings of the moral imagination): "Abraham Lincoln knew himself well—something we seldom allow for and perhaps do not want in a great man. It is harder to feel a legitimate pride in our own understanding when the hero has been there first."

(There are times when I am willing to concede that the essay can match the novel blow for blow when it comes to the intellectual and ethical investigation of character.)

And here is part two. If you can't click through with those links, perhaps send me an e-mail and I will see if I can e-mail them to you, these really are something special.

(Full disclosure: David Bromwich was one of my dissertation advisors, and if I were the type to be an intellectual acolyte--which I am not, not at all, nor is he the type to encourage such behavior--I would definitely sign on for this one. I learned more from that guy than from any other teacher I've ever had. And I learned a lot from a lot of the other teachers too, I have been very lucky in my teachers, so this is not a casual statement.)

Here's a particularly striking bit from the second part (it's a review essay, really, about recent Lincoln biographies by Richard Carwardine and Doris Kearns Goodwin):

A second popular fallacy has crept into recent discussions of the Civil War in the light of the present "war on terror." Two groups, unrestricted libertarians and admirers of an imperial presidency, now look back on Lincoln as a radical innovator in the use of emergency powers. Libertarians deplore what they think Lincoln did, while champions of executive power endorse it, but the two agree that he went extraordinarily far. How true is this? Let us remember that Lincoln was president at a time not of foreign but of civil war, the only extended war on American soil, when the very existence of the republic was in peril. He spoke of the situation candidly: "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?" He had both a profound and a practical love of liberty, and a notably unexaggerated view of the meaning of "maintaining its own existence." He was in fact, by the standards of later presidents such as Roosevelt, Nixon, and George W. Bush, restrained in his use of emergency powers. Lincoln went by a contracted not an expansive definition of state security.

His first invocation of such powers gives a sense of the purpose that informed his policy. Habeas corpus was suspended in 1861 to protect the railroad—used for the transportation of soldiers and supplies—against the danger that rioters in secessionist Maryland would tear up the tracks. A celebrated later episode turned on the arrest by General Burnside of the anti-Union demagogue Clement Vallandigham (an Ohio congressman and later a gubernatorial candidate): an arrest that Lincoln, without having ordered it, defended in a closely reasoned public letter. Having made his argument, he drew back and offered to revoke the order against Vallandigham if his supporters would swear not to foment desertion and sabotage.

But here's the part from the first half of the review that had me thinking for days afterwards:

Goodwin's subtitle [The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln] makes a point that is easily missed. The political genius of Lincoln appears most sharply in the collective talents of his cabinet. We may thus be reminded of two sorts of biography she has the wit not to attempt: the portrait of a solitary genius in politics, and the sequence of facts about a man who was president when important things happened around him. Both of those stories have been told about Lincoln, and both are misleading, but the second is the more pernicious and more apt to be taken seriously today. When Lincoln said in a late letter to Albert Hodges, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me," he was employing a stock formula of humility whose sense was evasive and concessive. Yet the statement has given deterministic historians, from his time to ours, all the evidence they need to convict him of playing a subordinate role in the inexorable march of events.

Goodwin asks us to regard Lincoln not as an isolated hero, and not as a patient absorber of the shocks of impersonal forces, but as the first among peers who led the country through its most dangerous emergency. What is a cabinet? In a constitutional system, it should represent neither the elite of a party nor the unmodified will of the people. Where persons of honor and competence are brought together and managed by a presiding intelligence—if the president knows who those people are and if the president is one who can lead and not just speak and sign—the cabinet becomes a well-adapted instrument for the public good, a body more coherent than a legislature and taking longer views than a king. To make it work, however, the president must have certain qualities. He must cherish an impartial curiosity about all the shades of opinion in the country he governs. He must want to hear bad news.

Lincoln determined from the first to make Seward his secretary of state—for the respect he commanded, for his worldly wisdom, and to reward all he had done to deliver a Republican victory in New York. Yet Seward differed with Lincoln immediately on the makeup of the cabinet. Lincoln believed it should exhibit the whole range of the party; Seward preferred to include nobody except former Whigs. Accordingly, he opposed the appointment of Chase, of Gideon Welles, and of Montgomery Blair, former Democrats whom he rightly saw as hostile to his interests. His New York ally Thurlow Weed backed this exclusionist plan, and told Lincoln that by taking on Chase at Treasury, Simon Cameron as secretary of war, Welles for the Navy, and Blair for postmaster general, he was building up a cabinet that threatened to overwhelm Seward at State, Bates as attorney general, and Caleb Smith in the Department of the Interior. It would simply make for a Democratic majority. "You seem to forget," said Lincoln, "that I expect to be there."

What is a cabinet, indeed?


  1. What a wickedly intelligent piece from Bromwich! Thanks.

  2. Jenny--NYRB lapsed. Must get a copy. Too bleary and tired to read it now and definitely reeling from the disclosure.

    It stands to reason that DB was your advisor, too.

    Weird, though.

    He was mine.

  3. Another 'light' reader here, who keeps plugging away at the NYRB though usually two or three issues behind. You are an inspiration to catch up, so I can say something relevant AND current.