A few years before my grandmother died, she cleared out her house, and gave me some of her souvenirs of Lincoln. There was nothing extraordinary, nothing rare, nothing valuable in the collection: a bad oil painting, a couple of framed copies of Brady portraits, a facsimile of the letter to Mrs. Bixby on the death of her sons in battle—the kind of things many Americans had in their houses a couple of generations ago. One item, however, struck me, the little legend printed at the top of the Bixby letter. “The famous Bixby letter,” the legend declared, “the model of perfect English.”1Reading it, I couldn’t disagree. Some have contended that Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, actually drafted the letter; if he did he had succeeded wonderfully in mastering his boss’s style, in reproducing the precision of his language, the severe grace of his sentences.2
Lincoln was a model writer of English prose—but he was also something else: a model of how a decent man comes to terms with the darker aspects of his own character. In Lincoln’s confession of his fascination with Macbeth he has left us a clue which, when taken together with certain passages from his speeches, and certain asides to his friends, amounts to the most elaborate and fascinating kind of confession. Those clues allow us to reconstruct, however imperfectly, the inner drama of a soul perplexed by its own ambitious yearnings—and permit us to glimpse the moral imagination of a civilized man in action.
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