H.L. Mencken famously held that it is hopeless to look for the real man in biographies as they tend toward distortion and sentimentalism. Regarding the authors he added: “Nearly all our professional historians are poor men holding college posts, and they are ten times more cruelly beset by the ruling politico-plutocratic-social oligarchy than ever the Prussian professors were by the Hohenzollerns. Let them diverge in the slightest form from what is the current official doctrine, and they are turned out of their chairs with a ceremony suitable for the expulsion of a drunken valet.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Lincoln and a Few Gourds of Corn Aboard
“Even Lincoln is yet to be got vividly between the covers of a book. The Nicolay-Hay work is quite impossible; it is not a biography, but simply a huge storehouse of biographical raw materials; whoever can read it can also read the official Records of the Rebellion.
So far as I can make out, no genuinely scientific study of the man has ever been attempted. The amazing conflict of testimony about him remains a conflict; the most elemental facts are yet to be established; he grows vaguer and more fabulous as year follows year.
One would think that, by this time, the question of his religious views (to take one example) ought to be settled, but apparently it is not, for no longer than a year ago there came a reverend author, Dr. William E. Barton, with a whole volume on the subject, and I was as much in the dark after reading it as I had been before I opened it. All previous biographers, it appeared by this author’s evidence, had either dodged the problem or lied.
The official doctrine, in this as in other departments, is obviously quite as unsound. One hears in the Sunday-schools that Abe was an austere and pious fellow, constantly taking the name of God in whispers . . . [and] that he was a shining idealist, holding all his vast powers by the magic of an inner and ineffable virtue.
Imagine a man getting on in American politics, interesting and enchanting the boobery, sawing off the horns of other politicians, elbowing his way through the primaries and conventions, by the magic of virtue!
Abe, in fact, must have been a fellow highly skilled at the great democratic art of gum-shoeing. I like to think of him as one who defeated such politicians as Stanton, Douglas and Sumner with their own weapons – deftly leading them into ambuscades, boldly pulling their noses, magnificently ham-stringing and hornswoggling them – in brief, as a politician of extraordinary talents, who loved the game for its own sake, and had the measure of the crowd.
His official portraits, both in prose and daguerreotype, show him wearing the mien of a man about to be hanged; one never sees him smiling. Nevertheless, one hears that, until he emerged from Illinois, they always put the women, children and clergy to bed when he got a few gourds of corn aboard, and it is a matter of unescapable record that his career in the State legislature was indistinguishable from that of a Tammany [Hall] Nietzsche.
(Roosevelt: An Autopsy, Prejudices, A Selection, H.L. Mencken, Johns Hopkins Press, 1996, pp. 48-49)