Abraham Lincoln & General Don José de San MartínSunday, May 15, 2011
One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's younger brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: "I am looking into the eyes that looked at the Emperor." Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it ( life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.
Roland Barthes - Reflections on Photography
In the beginning of 1950 in Argentina under the presidency of Juan Domingo Perón we were told by all our teachers that we had to write on the top right of every page of our notebooks the following;
1950 Año del Libertador General San Martín.
Most of us found this a tedious exercise not different from being told to write on the board 100 times “I must remember not to talk in class.” So we would write perhaps a month’s worth of 1950s.
|May 16, 1861|
I had a similar and just as wonderful experience in London in the mid 80s when I was there with my wife and two daughters. We went into Westminster Abbey. We explored the sumptuous crypts of the English kings. I stopped at one that said, “Edward the Confessor.” It was this English King, a Roman Catholic saint who was the St Edward in the name of the high school I had attended in Austin, Texas in the late 50s. Suddenly the name, the school combined to form in my mind the idea of a man who had existed. He had existed not because I had read of him, but because his bones were somewhere under that crypt.
It may have been also around 1950 when inside the USIS Lincoln Library on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires I found a magazine called American Heritage. Inside were pictures by Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan taken during the American Civil War. Some of the pictures showed dead men (the first I had really seen of death as I was 8 years old) but the pictures I stared at were pictures of soldiers (from both sides) looking out into the camera in an unwavering sort of way. I looked at them and in spite of their beards they looked like men I might see outside strolling and window shopping on Calle Florida. These men looked so real and then I noticed the dates in the early 1860s and I told myself that they were now dead even though they had been alive when the pictures were taken. I was moved and that incident remained with me for the rest of my life.
I am not an American but I am a Civil War buff and I have read many books about it. In high school I remember writing a book report about Ulysses S. Grant’s Wilderness Campaign. Every once in a while I want to order on line from ABE Books The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. One of my favourite novels of all time is Richard Adams’s Traveller in which Robert E. Lee’s horse (Traveller) tells a barn cat his experiences in a human endeavour called war. I have a big collection of Civil War photography books.
Despite recent rumors to the contrary, Lincoln displayed no vampiric powers in his early presidency. But it is true that he could appear many places at the same time, thanks to a chemical process that seemed to borrow as much from the dark arts as from science.
I looked at the six photographs (all seen here) and I almost had one of those Westminster Abbey moments. I had seen at least four of these pictures so the impact was not as great. But it set me thinking about another magical moment back in London when at the British Museum I was able to read (beneath glass) letters that Horatio Nelson had written to Lady Hamilton.
Three years ago in Austin, Texas at the Harry Ransom Centre I asked to see any handwritten letter they might have by Albert Einstein. When I saw his signature (I was unable to understand his German) the letter magically transformed itself into a photograph of civil war soldiers who had been dead for so many years but were alive now. And Lincoln no longer seems to be Raymond Massey or Henry Fonda but Lincoln himself!