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Lincoln: Author Candace Fleming Takes a Deeper Look

November 16, 2012

With the opening of Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln”, we know that there will be a renewed interest in all things Lincoln. Today, we wanted to highlight a book we love, The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. This comprehensive biography by Candace Fleming received four starred reviews and the Boston Globe Horn-Book award when it was published. The scrapbook format makes the Lincolns come to life, and the mix of photographs, newspaper articles, engravings, cartoons and text will appeal to readers of all ages. Candace joins us today to share even more about the Lincolns, her inspiration, and her thoughts on the film.

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Q. What prompted you to write about the Lincolns?

A.  Since childhood, Abraham Lincoln has been puttering around in my life, tall and sallow, bright-eyed but sorrowful, appearing here and there in likely and unlikely places, stirring things up, making himself undeniable to me. Before you think I’m crazy, allow me to explain my relationship with him – which runs pretty deep.

I grew up in a small town in central Illinois – the same small town in which Abraham and his parents, Tom and Sarah Lincoln, settled when they moved to Illinois back in 1830. The Lincolns built a log cabin there – a cabin that 140 some years later my friends and I used as a playhouse. Pedaling our bicycles the three miles to the Lincoln log cabin, we climbed the rickety ladder to the dust-filled loft. We clambered around the cool, mildewed root cellar. Then bored, we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled over to Shiloh Cemetery – not much more than a dozen or so graves stuck in the middle of a cornfield – to rest against the cool, gray slab of marble marking Tom and Sarah’s final resting place.

Almost every Friday, I spent the night at Emily’s house. Hers was a drafty, old Victorian where legend had it, Lincoln had slept in the 1850’s. I could picture him climbing the front stairs and removing his improbable stovepipe hat to greet the lady of the house before crossing the threshold into the cool parlor. I could picture him in Emily’s room, too, with his too short nightshirt and his bony, bare toes. I longed to talk with him. More than once we pulled out the Ouija Board in an attempt to conjure him up. Despite our pleas to the afterlife, he never came. It didn’t matter. We could hear him anyway. Lincoln’s voice seemed to echo from every bridge, every street corner, every riverbank. He was always present. He was always there – my friend. And so, more than anything, I wanted to give my readers an Abraham Lincoln who smelled of wood smoke, who told jokes too naughty to repeat in a children’s book; who suffered from sore feet, and loved cats. In short, I wanted them to meet my Abraham Lincoln – my Central Illinois neighbor, my old friend.

Q. The book is full of primary source documents, research and photos. Where did you do your research? Was there one place that you found the most relevant material?

A. During my five years of research for the book, I visited (honestly!) every Lincoln site in the country. I poured through thousands of documents. And I spoke with dozens of Lincoln scholars, archivists, museum directors, collectors. All added to my understanding of the Lincoln and his times. Still, I have to say that the bulk of my work was done at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. Having interned there (actually at its predecessor The Illinois State Historic Library) when I was in college, I already knew the director of the Lincoln collection so I had some pretty good help. The place is a treasure trove of all things Lincoln; the biggest collection in the country. I spent weeks there.

Q. Why do you think Lincoln is still such a relevant historical figure today?

A. Abraham Lincoln symbolizes the best of America. Here was a man born in poverty with less than a year’s formal education who rose to highest office in the land. He did so through humility, strength of character, moral vision and an inclusive spirit. “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln didn’t just spout these word during his second inaugural address. He lived them. Refusing to demonize the South, he was already building bridges across our country’s great political and social divide in the days before his death. What a great example of democratic leadership!

Q. Non-fiction can sometimes be dry. How do you make history come alive for young people reading your books?

A. My biographies spring from my desire to be nosy and dig around in people’s lives. Seriously. On my desk I keep a note card on which I’ve scrawled a quote from John F. Kennedy. It reads, “All history is gossip.” Of course, if I had my druthers, I’d rewrite that quote to read, “All history is gossip as long as it’s been substantiated and cited.” Still, I think there’s a lot of truth to the idea of history as gossip. After all, that’s precisely what I’m digging for when I’m researching a biographical subject — childhood memories, reminisces of the neighbors, revealing diary entries. In short, I’m searching for the human stuff — the things that formed them and made them who they were.

And let’s face it, the best biographies are those that peek into the heart and soul of their subject. They delve deep beneath the surface of dry, dusty “fact” to find the real, human story. Let me give you an example.

Here is a fact: On June 17, 1858 Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech.

Here is the true story that lies just below the fact: In June 1858 Lincoln prepared to give a speech in front of the Republican convention in Springfield. He’d been thinking about it for weeks, scribbling notes and squirreling them away in his hat. When he finally showed the finished speech to his most trusted friends, all suggested he cut the opening lines. They are too incendiary, Lincoln’s friends said, too ahead of their time. Then Abraham asked Mary.

I can see him, reading it to her as she sits on the horsehair sofa in their front parlor. She has shooed away their boys, taken the pot of chicken-and-dumplings off the stove. Now he has her full attention. And when he finishes, she gives her opinion. She says, give the speech as written. Keep those opening lines. “It will make you president.”

Lincoln took her advice. He didn’t change a word. Days later, he gave his speech. It began: “A house divided against itself cannot stand… I believe that government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

The difference between the two is profound. Facts are nouns; stories are verbs. Together, they make history soar. They make a story —a true story. And stories are what connect readers to the subject on a human level. The subject becomes flesh and blood, as full of complexities and contradictions as you and I. That’s what good biography does — it brings its subject back to life through telling details, lively quotes, and humorous anecdotes. And in doing so – in revealing that human story beneath the facts — it not only leads its readers toward an understanding of Lincoln and his time, but an understand of themselves as well.

Q. Do you still think about Lincoln now that you have moved on to other projects? Do you plan to see the movie?

A. I think about Lincoln every day. How could I not? When I am working on a biography, I become an invisible daily witness to that person’s life – standing at his elbow, listening to his conversations, observing smiles or frowns. As the weeks, months, years of research pass that person becomes a part of me. When the project is finally over, I miss him. There’s s little hole in my life. So of course I’m going to the movie. I’m excited about visiting with my old friend again.

If you want to see more of Candace, here is a terrific Classroom Cast video about why she writes nonfiction books, and here she is accepting her Boston Globe Horn-Book award for The Lincolns.

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