I Am Abraham - Which One?Wednesday, March 05, 2014
At this moment I am putting my copy of Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham, aside. I am doing with the novel what my Rosemary does with Mars bars (a Canadian chocolate bar similar to the Milky Way). I am half way through but like Rosemary, who sneaks into the kitchen to slice thin slivers the bar on the cutting board, a sliver at a time, and by evening it is all gone. We both now how to savour and prolong the pleasure of good things.
Thrilling as I Am Abraham is
(particularly if you are a Lincoln fan as I am) I have to let it go to peruse
in my head the information that Charyn throws at me in what would seem is a
mask of novelized facts. But between reading an official biography rich in
detail or reading a real memoir like U.S. Grant’s I will take the second and if
a memoir is not available a novelized one will be my choice if I know the
author. Two of the best novelized memoirs I have read in the last four months
have been Tomás Eloy Martínez’s
Santa Evita and Marcos Aguinis’s La Furia de Evita. And of course it wasn’t too
long ago that I read with pleasure Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.
|Jacket design Tal Goretsky|
I will not write here one of those silly art critic comments on why Charyn would pick Dickinson and Lincoln as his subjects. He is clear in the Author’s Note to I Am Abraham as to why he chose the latter and I will write about that below.
First I will put forward an observation not based on any facts or scholarship but by someone who is primarily a portrait photographer, and that’s me.
Let’s look at four historical figures, Lisa Gherardini, Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.
|Lisa Gherardini, Leonardo da Vinci|
Of the four only one has given us the sound of his voice and we have also seen him in news films. He exists in our minds as someone we think we know. In my case I can even smell in my head the aroma of his Romeo y Julieta’s.
But the other three are enigmas. There is one known photograph of Dickinson. What we know of her is through her poetry and a few observations by people who knew her.
Of the Mona Lisa we know absolutely nothing except that little known fact that her family, once a patrician one, were exiled to several countries including Ireland where they adopted the name of Fitzgerald. You can connect then the possibility that she and John Fitzgerald Kennedy might have been related.
While there are a few extant Daguerreotypes of President Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln had provided history with over 100 likenesses. Of those I have counted (purely subjectively) one almost smile and two half smiles.
So I believe that our attraction to Mona Lisa, Emily Dickinson (particularly after we have seen her one image) and of Lincoln has to do with our inability to know who the person behind the mask is.
|Andrew Jackson - Mathew Brady - between 1844-1845|
And with Lincoln (those three almost smiles) you see a gaunt, sad, troubled man who sometimes seems to be at peace, in spite of the turmoil of his life.
It is the enigma of those three faces, Lincoln, the Mona Lisa and Emily Dickinson that makes it compulsory for us to return to them to see them and read about them.
Both Lincoln and Dickinson look absolutely contemporary in their portraits specially when you realize that they were alive when they faced the camera.
We know that the exposure times for these 19th century portraits could be one minute or more. This forced a photographer’s subject to sit still (a framework of metal contraptions held them in place but not seen by the camera) but even then one cannot avoid seeing the patient melancholy behind Lincoln’s eyes.
In his Author’s Notes Charyn begins: I never liked Lincoln.
He then retracts and writes: Then several winters ago, I happened upon a book about Lincoln’s lifelong depression – or hypos, as nineteenth-century metaphysicians described acute melancholia, and suddenly that image of the backwoods saint vanished, and now I had a new entry point into Lincoln’s life and language – my own crippling bouts of depression, where I would plunge in the same damp, drizzly November of the soul that Melville describes in Moby-Dick. But I was no Ishmael. I couldn’t take my hypos with me aboard some whaler. I had to lie abed for a month until my psyche began to knit and mend, while some hired gunslinger of a novelist taught my classes in creative writing at the City College.
Jerome Charyn’s novel I Am Abraham is of a man whose pictures you see here. But consider this; the last photograph of Lincoln taken by Alexander Gardner on February 5, 1865 was, as far as we know the last portrait of the man before his date at Ford’s Theatre for the production of Our American Cousin on April 14.
And in this photograph, a glass plate, (it was originally thrown away and is all that remains of Lincoln’s session with Gardner) Lincoln is giving the best smile he ever gave to a camera. That image is what the cover illustration of Charyn’s novel is based on.
Let us hope that Charyn’s hypos will have receded as we await his next book which will surely be about some other person whose face is or was an enigma.
The pictures of Lincoln below are in chronological order and they begin in 1846/47 and end February 5, 1865.
|Portrait by Brady taken after Lincoln made his Cooper Union Speech on Feb 27 1860|
|Jerome Charyn, 1995 Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
|Hair cut to facilitate the making of life mask|
|Photograph by Alexander Gardner, illustration on Charyn's book based on this.|
|Lincoln's second inauguration March 4 1865. Lincoln under black dot, John Wilkes Booth under black dot|
|Lincoln and son Tad|