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.


Anonymous said...

The heroic Lincoln is a myth. The real Lincoln was a miserable tyrant who destroyed the Republic.

Roberta SchulbergGoro said...

I agree that comparing Lincoln to Christ is absurd. But I still believe that Lincolns intent was to free the slaves in a country which held itself together. Why did the south secede only after the law to release slaves was passed? The south was still stronger with northern industry than without it. Air conditioning was not yet invented. The climate of southern summers is brutally hot and the wealthy landowners wanted someone, not themselves, to do the necessary labor. A life of slavery is dreadfully, painfully bitter.

Anonymous said...

Who let these angry men on this site? This is a fascinating example of how legends are made and how Lincoln is the greatest American legend for many reasons. Also, Tolstoy shows off his narrative power. Great stuff! Nathaniel and Anonymous... Relax.

Thad said...

The hostility most likely stems from a misreading of the text. The important figure for this reading is Tolstoy and his views on a foreign leader, not Lincoln. Tolstoy's views aren't based on the president's history as much as they are based on Tolstoy's radical beliefs and own opinions about what constitutes leadership. One might be better served not considering this a 'sixth-grade-text-book account' but rather the opinions of one of the nineteenth century's greatest novelists. After all, it's just the opinions of a man, much like you and me.

Buck Batard said...

Why do you call men angry when all they demand is that they be given the truth about our "heroes". I haven't read the article but already I know it is a piece of propaganda, the comparison of Christ to Lincoln being quite over the top. Get the newspapers of the day and read, but realize that every newspaper generally has a strong political component so you are verly likely reading propaganda in the newspapers of the period, however they are not plastered with the ideology that is fashionable today. By reading several newspapers of the era, one can gain an understanding of the events that occurred during the period. Although Lincoln shut a few down I think.

For example, it would be helpful to have a writer put together a book about the Civil War that follows the course of one of the best books I've ever read which is called "American Aurora" which was written by the exceptionally talented Richard N. Rosenfeld. Mr. Rosenfeld's book is one of the best historical books I've ever read but is about the "founding fathers" and the terrible feuds that they had with each other. The Newspaper probably saved the young Republic, although John Adams tried his best to shut down the newspaper that critiqued him most severely - a Democratic Republican newspaper (read the book to figure out what that means if you don't know). But that newspaper did live on, even though the owner, the namesake and grandson by marriage of Benjamin Franklin owned it. Adams had him arrested and he died while awaiting trial.

And of course, Lincoln violated some important civil rights which were ruled to be patently illegal after the war. The following was lifted from a site from which I have not taken the time to analyze its political slant, however the following is fact based. Critique it if you can.

"As the Civil War started, in the very beginning of Lincoln's presidential term, a group of "Peace Democrats" proposed a peaceful resolution to the developing Civil War by offering a truce with the South, and forming a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect States' rights. The proposal was ignored by the Unionists of the North and not taken seriously by the South. However, the Peace Democrats, also called copperheads by their enemies, publicly criticized Lincoln's belief that violating the U.S. Constitution was required to save it as a whole. With Congress not in session until July, Lincoln assumed all powers not delegated in the Constitution, including the power to suspend habeas corpus. In 1861, Lincoln had already suspended civil law in territories where resistance to the North's military power would be dangerous. In 1862, when copperhead democrats began criticizing Lincoln's violation of the Constitution, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout the nation and had many copperhead democrats arrested under military authority because he felt that the State Courts in the north west would not convict war protesters such as the copperheads. He proclaimed that all persons who discouraged enlistments or engaged in disloyal practices would come under Martial Law.

Finally, in 1866, after the war, the Supreme Court officially restored habeas corpus in Ex-parte Milligan, ruling that military trials in areas where the civil courts were capable of functioning were illegal.

attribution here:


I take issue with the use of the word "angry men". Men seeking the truth are not angry. They may be contemptuous of false history and the followers of false history and find in them horrible flaws, but all they seek is the truth. One does not need to be angry to be a truth seeker.

Anonymous said...

Lincoln was the first American dictator. He waged war on his on people. His policies, followed by his generals, inflicted warfare on non-combatants, starved innocent civilians in the South, and totally violated the Constitution. He destroyed "freedom of the press" by having many newspaper editors in the North, who questioned his policies, thrown in jail with no charges and no trial, How anyone considers him a hero of this country is beyond belief.

Gary said...

I pity the fools who do not understand. Nit-picking about an era in which they did not live, in a situation they do not understand. Lincoln was a hero because of the suffering he went through, surrounded by political enemies with a situation the country had not encountered before and not directly covered under the constitution he had the overarching goal of saving the union. What would Anonymous, Buck, and Ken have, succession to have succeeded? Then there would not be an America as we now know it. In WWII the South would have joined the Fascists and we would have had a terrible war anyway. No, the real destroyers of this country, if there are any, history will find to be Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Lesser and the ditto head followers of greed and selfishness. Saying that one is Christ-like is not an absurd comparison, it is used to convey an idea, an analogy, not a statement of religious equality. Facts are only facts, context is needed as well as understanding. There is a whole lot of history that the detractors have left out of their prejudice (can't call it analysis when there is none).
Lincoln singlehandedly made America and its ideals possible, without him there would be no America. Yes, the founding fathers established the United States, but as Benjamin Franklin said, "...a Republic, if you can keep it." Lincoln was the key that formed and allowed us to have a republic. He was definitely spiritually led to be in the right place at the right time by forces outside himself and he rose to what the occasion called for even though flawed like we all are. That is what makes a hero.
In sum: Ya'll are idiots.

Anonymous said...

lol, Gary.

I have the same thing to say about anything anyone states as an absolute (Lincoln was a dictator, etc.), which is: YOU WERE NOT THERE. Even simply living in the same time period doesn't mean you'd know everything.

For example, my wife's parents were Jews living in Warsaw during WWII. My wife had asked them about the Nazis soon after learning about the Holocoust in grade school, to which they replied they never saw the Nazis, only Russians. When she was in college, where she majored in history, she asked her professor about her parents' claims, as all historical accounts at the time (this was back in the mid-seventies) maintained that the Russians had not invaded Poland at the same time as th Germans. In that place of higher learning my future wife was told that her parents were wrong, were mistaken. I sincerely hope that audacious professor was crushed when Gorbachev came clean about Russia's invasion of Poland, which was simultaneous with Germany's.

So again, I'm just saying YOU WERE NOT THERE.


David said...

Thank you, Gary.
I only hope the country will move away from greed and socialism to a return of the fundamental priciples it was founded upon.
The "idiots" are just a symptom of the degradation of our society and what was once the best educational system in the world, made possible by leaders like Lincoln and Reagan. A one time communist sympathizer that recognized the movement for what it was, and still is.

Anonymous said...

This is literature, why is everyone expecting some sort of journalistic accuracy here? It is meant to demonstrate the mythic power Lincoln had which was felt even in the east. He was a legend. It is important to know how one was perceived to understand his influence over humanity.

Anonymous said...

i post acerbic vitriol because i want people to listen to me. i am insignificant.

Anonymous said...

There are some strange bitter people out there. Lincoln was the greatest man in American history.

Anonymous said...

Believing that Lincoln was born to do what he did, I believe that he gave up his life for what God had designed him to carry our country to set men free and to make us realize we must rely on Our Father, God

epaburke said...

If we are predestined, any of us, then we are all ants, and there is no point to wondering about the actions of any particular member. If we have free will, then the story of one person deciding to do what he believes to be right beomes a compelling, an interesting story. It becomes a story of what a human being can accomplish, with his or her own will , guided by any God you like, or only by his or her own conscience. Lincoln not only had free will, he was more free than most people. Most people prefer the security of never having to make a decision for which they might be held personally accountable. If Lincoln had such qualms, they were not of sufficient magnitude to paralyze his decision-making capacity. Lincoln acknowledged that he was responsible for the decisons he made. Like everyone, or anyone, he was as free as he was responsible.