Friday, February 12, 2010

Tolstoi Holds Lincoln World’s Greatest Hero

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910),
as told to Count S. Stakelberg

From The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now

The closing pages of Team of Rivals, Doris Kearn Goodwin’s best-selling volume on Abraham Lincoln, assess the aftermath of his death and remark on the “scope of Lincoln’s legacy by the time the new century arrived,” having spread even to a “wild and remote area of the Caucasus.” A reporter for the New York World interviewed Leo Tolstoy for the Lincoln centennial in 1909; the Russian novelist’s response, which was closer to hagiography than analysis, includes a famous anecdote about Lincoln’s outsized reputation among the Circassian people of the Caucasus. The opinions attributed to Tolstoy here—that Lincoln was “Christ in miniature,” that “he overshadows all other national heroes,” that he “was bigger than his country”—contrast sharply with his statement in War and Peace: “In historical events great men—so-called—are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event itself” (Constance Garrett translation). For Presidents Day—and in honor of Lincoln’s 201st birthday—we present Tolstoy’s commentary in full.

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Visiting Leo Tolstoi in Yasnaya with the intention of getting him to write an article on Lincoln, I unfortunately found him not well enough to yield to my request. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.