A Lincoln Road Trip, part one

Bing map showing HodgenvilleIf you’re driving north of Nashville along U.S. Route 31E, which for almost 150 miles runs parallel to interstate highway 65, you’re probably patting yourself on the back for slyly avoiding the toll road. Or maybe it isn’t a toll road — but nevertheless I’ve just brought you into one of the secrets of American road-tripping. (Where there is one road there is also another, older road that is cheaper, pleasanter, directer and so often no slower than the new one.) In any case you’ll go about 130 of those miles before you roll wearily by Hammonville, which is north of Munfordville and Hardyville and Campbellsville, they indeed north of Scottsville, Russellville, Hopkinsville, Tompkinsville, Madisonville, Cookeville, Burkesville, and so on. Tom Lincoln’s family seem to have been the only settlers not to have named a town after themselves. Go figure: his was also the one to produce an American president.

Kentucky bluegrass stem

A stem showing why it’s called ‘bluegrass’ but not why Kentucky any more than say, Scotland, should be called the ‘Bluegrass State’.

By the time you see signs for Hodgenville two of your children are desperate for McDonald’s and KFC, respectively and irreconcilably, and the third for a toilet (or something approximate). Your car is running out of fuel, your spouse already has, and the jolly great sky is blinding, probably, because there’s nothing else happening in the state nicknamed for a type of grass which in fact grows all over the world. Just beyond Boundary Oak, a stupidly winsome little place without any restaurants, you steer off the road and park too close to a tree. Blame your excitement: this is the first decent greenery since you left Tennessee.

Taking your youngest by the hand you march into the woods — my, there are a lot of people around — in search of a suitable place to relieve priority ‘Number One’. And then you see it, incredibly, unfurling its granite steps before you.

A Greek temple.

You can’t believe your eyes, but squinting dumbly at it makes no difference. Marble columns, brilliant white stone tumbling down the hillside, middle of nowhere. You were not aware of any local Greek settlement, some Papadopoulosville nestled a day’s tractor ride from anywhere. Curiosity simmering, you collect the remaining contents of your automobile and hit the granite. If you’ve got a counting child he’ll tell you the steps number 56 but you, parboiled in your own sweat, will not care. And yet upon learning that within the oddly-placed temple there sits nothing more than an ordinary log cabin, you may well regret summitting this new peak of human eccentricity.

Legend has it that Lincoln was born in this one-room cabin.... Sounds made-up to me.

Legend has it that Lincoln was born in this one-room cabin…. Sounds made-up to me.

Within moments someone welcomes you to the United States National Historic Site of the Birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, a sacred spot preserved by entombing the sixteenth President’s nativitic log cabin within a neoclassical outburst of marble and granite. An apter metaphor for American history itself does not exist.

Now, where’s the nearest McDonald’s?

(To be continued… click here.)

Read books, do you?

Abraham Lincoln (1858)

Abraham Lincoln (1858), smiling.

Turns out you’re one of those sadly inferior persons who prefers his road maps to function independently of an electric charge. On top of which, you’re a margin-scribbler; that’s why you’ve never been able to join a library. Glancing at your American road atlas you find that someone has pencilled something textual to the east of Glasgow, KY. Unlikely as it may seem, this piece of literate vandalism appears to be a list of Lincoln-related books at the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in the United Kingdom! Stranger than fiction, truth.

Lincoln Legends by Edward Steers Jr.Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President (University Press of Kentucky, 2007) by Edward Steers, Jr.

Noted historian and Lincoln expert Steers carefully scrutinizes some of the most notorious tall tales and distorted ideas about America’s sixteenth president. Did he write his greatest speech on the back of an envelope (Gettysburg Address, ha ha!) on the way to the battlefield? Did he appear before a congressional committee to defend his wife against charges of treason? Was his mother an illegitimate child? Did he have love affairs with other women? With men, for that matter? Did he have a Chinese character tattooed on his ankle? (Or did I make that last one up?)

Lincoln, A Photobiography by Russell FreedmanLincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion Books, 1987) by Russell Freedman.

This book is not, as I expected, a photo album. It is a biography illustrated liberally by photograph portraits and other images. On its cover is a John Newberry Medal, distinguishing this book among the other ‘American Literature for Children’. And yet, how many children’s books include photographs of soldiers lying shot and dead on the ground? Includes a chapter of Lincoln quotes (‘I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.’) and another of Lincoln sites of interest. An intriguing piece of work, this, well worth checking out.

The Lincolns by Candace FlemingThe Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2008) by Candace Fleming.

I chose this out of an interest in experimental biography. Again, not a photo album. There is no running narrative here but rather a collection of ‘scraps’ — stories, images, events, stuff — from Lincoln’s life, cobbled together onto around 150 pages. Lots of words, but also a helluva lot of pictures. It’s impressive for the amount of research apparently involved, and a great treasure for archive rats or those who are curious about the material record.

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