Wednesday, February 6, 2013

David Herbert Donald's favorite Abe Lincoln yarn

Nearly 30 years ago, I had the pleasure of auditing a course in Jacksonian America with David Herbert Donald, who won Pulitzer prizes for his biographies of Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe. Donald, who also wrote a superb biography of Abraham Lincoln, was a vivid lecturer. Attentive students left his class with pictures in their minds  of the bibulous, bulbous-headed Daniel Webster burying the upright carcass of his favorite bull at his estate in Marshfield, Mass., of William Lloyd Garrison fleeing an anti-abolitionist mob through the streets of Boston.

David Donald, his dog Teddy and I on a walk near his house in Wellfleet.
In 2004, five years before Donald's death, I contacted him and asked if I could interview him about his life and work. We met four times, three in his house and library on Lincoln Street in Lincoln, Mass., and once in his summer house at Wellfleet on Cape Cod. I reordered and shaped the transcripts of these interviews into an oral history focusing on how a historian with Mississippi roots developed a national perspective.

And, of course, I tried to learn from the master. The excerpt from the interviews below focuses on Donald's approach to writing. It closes with his answer to a question I'm glad I asked: What was your favorite among the stories Lincoln told? The Randall referred to here is James G. Randall, the Lincoln biographer of a previous generation who became Donald's mentor during graduate study at the University of Illinois:

I think my story-telling style came from being a Southerner where we all talk all the time and we all tell stories s stories. There is no Southerner I ever knew who didn’t say, “You know, that reminds me of your Uncle Jim, who did so and so and so and so,” and the story will go on and on, and somebody else will pick it up and go, “Yes, and you know, Aunt Mary was kin to him, and she did thus and thus and thus and so.” And the stories tend to get a little wilder and wilder with repetition.

My training in writing came primarily from Professor Randall. He was a brilliant stylist in a somewhat high academic fashion. I was his research assistant for a number of years. In his last years he was dictating his writings to me at the typewriter. So he would be thinking aloud and saying such and such. I was a fast typist, and I was typing it. He’d say, “I can’t say it that way.” He would parse it out. “Let’s try it this way . . . and try it this way.” Just hearing him think aloud about the best way of saying something has stuck with me ever since.

I compose aloud. Even at the computer, I compose a sentence, and I read it out to myself. If I can’t read it simply, then nobody else is going to be able to read it. When the carpenters were working on this addition to my house, I was working in the other room. I’d compose a couple of sentences and read them aloud and change them and do it over and over again. The carpenters took a break for coffee and were sitting under that tree out there. And on one of my breaks, I listened to them, and one of them said, “Do you think he’s all right?” And the other one said, “I guess so, you know, but he sits there talking to himself all the time.” Well, I do talk to myself all the time.

I used to tell my graduate students that I want you to read your chapter aloud to somebody else – your roommate, your wife, your partner. You might not have a wife or a partner for long if you do, but this is the best possible way – if they can’t be interested, nobody else is going to be interested in it.

When I first went to work for Professor Randall, in many ways I thought Lincoln would have been a great bore – an uncouth man telling funny, often kind of dirty stories and laughing at his own stories. This wouldn’t be a person that I would like at all. I already had my eye on Charles Sumner, who I would have found much more compatible intellectually. Over the years I’ve come to realize that Lincoln was indeed a funny man. Maybe it is just that I have matured and some of the Lincoln stories I used to hear when I was just beginning in this field that then seemed pointless now seem to be so very real.

My favorite Lincoln story he told on himself. It was one of the early Republican conventions – a meeting of editors. People wondered what he as a politician was doing there. So he got up and made a self-denigrating speech. “You’re wondering why I’m here. People often wonder why I’m here. This has been true all my life. I’m reminded of a story. I was out in the woods cutting trees in Indiana, and a woman came along riding on horseback and she looked down at me, and she said, ‘My, you are the ugliest man that I ever saw.’ And he said, ‘Yes, ma’am, but I can’t help it.’ And she said, ‘Well, you could have stayed at home.’ ” .    

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