Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How a Nation Reports its Grief

Glenn Alan Cheney*
Theatre box where Abraham Lincoln was
shot on April 14, 1865. Ford's Theatre,
Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Library
of Congress.
When I started compiling How a Nation Grieves: Press Accounts of the Death of Lincoln, the Hunt for Booth, andAmerica in Mourning, I had little intention of pulling together a whole book. But I soon realized I was witnessing—not reading about but witnessingthe most traumatic moment in American history. The assassination of Lincoln had shocked North and South alike.

Except for the people at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the American people witnessed the national trauma through newspapers. Journalism was a little different in those days. Its practitioners were not restricted to today’s dispassionate, professional voice. They were expected to provide details, and they were free to use language to connote the emotions that came with those details.

We do not know which reporter The Age of Philadelphia sent to Independence Hall on April 22 to witness the wake and open casket that bore the remains of the former president. The article on the event that appeared on April 25 had no byline, but it included the following:

The flowers filled with dust,
and their white and crimson mouths,
instead of being filled with soft silver dew,
were dry and parched and arid,
sprinkled over with dust, as though
it had been distributed by a dredger box.

The wax tapers were discolored with it,
and it seemed even to make the flames
of the candles sputter.

It had settled in thick layers
upon the portion of the coffin lid
which had not been removed, and,
above all, on the features of the dead.

This it was, the dusty accumulation
of a whole day, which lent so leaden
a cast to the face,
and covered with an unruffled
and unnatural veil the really
genial and kind expression.

But the undertaker’s skillful brush,
long, thick, light, and flossy,
removed, with a few artistic touches,
the unseemly discoloration,
and a white cambric handkerchief,
delicately applied, transformed to itself
the last molecule lingerings.

That was a paragraph, not a poem. But when I compiled How a Nation Grieves, I found myself reading articles that went beyond journalism and into the realm of literature and poetry. I decided to start each chapter with a few sentences broken up into the appearance of a poem. Each chapter presents the reports and editorials appearing on one given day in cities across the nation, though the first chapter included reports appearing between April 10 and April 14. Those few days before the assassination brought the news that Lee had surrendered the Confederacy’s largest army. The southern cause was now hopeless. The war was over, the Union saved, the slaves freed. From The Sun of Baltimore I pulled a title, and from the Washington Chronicle I pulled two sentences:

The All-absorbing Subject of Remark

This news will go everywhere
like an angelic visitor.

It will heal the sick,
restore the drooping

and fill all the land
with thanksgiving.

As I watched for more unintended poetry, my careful reading of each sentence gave me a new perspective on the history I was witnessing. These were newspaper reports, not retrospective analyses of events that had moved from current to historical. Every line was written with no knowledge of what would follow, how the events of the next day, the next year, and the next centuries would shed new significance on their observations.

The Hartford Courant ran an un-bylined article from the Springfield Republican, written by a reporter in Richmond, Va., who quoted a former slave. The New York Times provided me a title that lends the quote a chilling prescience:

A Quarrel in Embryo

Dey part us all.
Dey send us away from our family.
Dey send us jus whar dey please.

Dey han-cuff us.
Dey put us in jail.
Dey give us thirty-nine lashes.
Dey starve us.

Dey do ebery ting to us.

At the National Intelligencer one reporter, writing during the hours between the shot at Ford’s Theatre and the president’s death just across the street, wrote a single, long, heavy sentence that must have brought him close to tears. During those same hours, an editor at the Daily Constitutional Union ended a sentence with three words of piercing irony:

Carnival of Blood

As to the awful catastrophe,
the drift of reliable information
is, that
when a pistol shot was heard
in the second box
of the right-hand side
of the stage of Ford’s theatre,
persons in the theatre
that it was part of the play.

Newspapers reported that Abraham Lincoln went to that play with a certain lightness in his heart. The nation had been tearing itself apart on every one of his 1,503 days in office. Now the war was almost over, and the capital itself, once threatened by invasion, was in a lighter mood. The last sound that Abraham Lincoln heard was people laughing, and maybe he was laughing, too. The play, Our American Cousin, was a satire contrasting the cultures of England and its former colony. The last line spoken that night was “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out—you sockdologizing old man-trap!” Half the joke was that silly-sounding word “sockdologizing.” It was relatively new to the English language, and it hasn’t been used much since. It comes from a combination of sock, meaning “to hit hard,” and doxology, with its notion of finality. Historians have theorized that John Wilkes Booth, an actor who knew the play well, had been waiting for that line and the uproarious laughter it would provoke.

Just as we can link ourselves to the past through these newspaper accounts, the times they reported link forward to ours. The April 17 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer gave its times and ours a rather long sentence whose rhythm and timing are impeccable. The title comes from Booth’s dramatic declaration, spoken as he stood with a broken leg on the stage of a comedy, words that are still today in the motto of the state of Virginia:

Sic Semper

The art of misrepresentation
has been, from the first,
boldly resorted to
in order to bolster up
an unrighteous cause,

and whether the effort was to show
that a violation of the Constitution
was constitutional,
or that a war undertaken
to establish slavery forever
was a battle in behalf of freedom,

whatever was the object to be gained,
it has generally been
that the common claims of the language
were perverted.

If the perversion of language served the justification of slavery, war, and twisted notions of constitutionality, the reportage that followed the death of Lincoln was a victory of language—language beautiful, poetic, philosophical, and emotional. It reported tragedy, but it did so with dignity and honor. It reported the facts and struggled to articulate the incomprehensible. Language expressed the grief of a nation, and the underlying truth of it speaks to us still.

Glenn Alan Cheney is the editor of How a Nation Grieves: Press Accounts of the Death of Lincoln, the Hunt for Booth, and America in Mourning, with a foreword by U.S. Representative Joe Courtney. Details and excerpts at


IC said...

Beautifully written about their beautiful writing. The journalists were grieving along with the rest of the nation. We have them and you to thank for a glimpse into the greatest loss ever felt by our country to date.

KY 'Gogo' said...

Oh, to touch the heart of a nation brought to us with your words. Thanks, Glen. We, too, have so much to mourn but do we have heart.

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Jessica said...

Wonderfully written. Thank you for sending me the facebook message with the link to this page. I really do agree that the journalism and writing style back then was very different than today. You can see and feel and hear what they are trying to tell you. Oh, if only it was still written like this today.