Odd little Lincoln book reveals unexpected joys
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My teenage daughters love Zenith, a sprawling veggie restaurant/art gallery/secondhand shop on the South Side. They go for the vintage clothes and jewelry.
One recent Saturday, I was sprawled in a chair, waiting for the girls to finish hunting, when I reached over and grabbed a dusty hardback with a title I couldn't quite make out.
"Why Lincoln Laughed,'' it said.
"How much?'' I asked the proprietor.
"Two dollars?'' she answered.
She broke my 20. I took the odd little volume home. Written in 1922 by an old man named Russell H. Conwell, it begins with an account of his visit to the White House in December 1864.
Mr. Conwell, who later founded Temple University in Philadelphia, was a 21-year-old Union officer then. He sought a presidential pardon for a boyhood playmate from Vermont who'd been sentenced to a firing squad for innocently floating a Northern newspaper to a Confederate sentry on the other side of a stream.
Abe Lincoln granted the pardon, and the two men spent a couple of hours talking. Many years later -- two score and 18, to be precise -- this was enough to inspire a book.
Maybe I wouldn't have dropped two bucks on this book had I not dropped five times that on "Lincoln'' the movie, but I've been pleased by both purchases. The Lincoln within these pages echoed the man portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis on film, eager to sit and joke with a young soldier and find respite from wartime woes. Were it not for this meandering hodgepodge of recollections, I'd have never known Lincoln was such a big fan of stand-up comedy.
Comic routines might have been billed as lectures then, but much of this book's midsection is devoted to the humor of Artemus Ward, of whom Lincoln was a friend and fan. The description of Ward made him sound like a cross between Stephen Wright, the deadpan ironist, and Frankie Capri, the lounge singer who has wowed Pittsburgh audiences for decades with an act that's equal parts kazoo interludes, mechanical monkeys and Elvis Presley hits.
According to this book, Mr. Lincoln thought Ward's show "was the most downright comical thing that had ever been put before the public, and he laughed heartily even as he described it. Ward had a nondescript collection of stuffed animals which he exhibited upon the stage; he told the audience it was cheaper to stuff the animals once than to keep stuffing them continually.
" ... He had also a picture of the Western plains -- the poorest one he could find. He would say, 'The Indians in this picture have not come along yet.'
" ... His manner was that of an utter idiot, and his blank stare, when the audience laughed at something he had said, was enough in itself to send the whole hall into paroxysms of mirth.''
Like Sam Kinison, that angry comic from the 1980s, Ward was a heavy drinker who would die in his 30s, but the teetotaler Lincoln loved him for "most unselfishly trying to keep people cheerful in a most depressing time."
We still need laughs, and I share Ward's routine partly because it still seems funny -- though Mr. Conwell warned that "to attempt the analysis of humor is as if a philosopher should try to put a glance of love into a geometrical diagram or the soul of music into a plaster cast."
I share it mostly, though, because this book's 90-year journey from publication to my hands is at once unlikely and a common experience for any frequenter of used-book stores. Even in (or maybe because of) our high-tech age, these serendipitous finds remain far more satisfying than randomly surfing the Internet.
Tweets don't last 90 years, and they'll never have the same feel in your hand.
We're still blessed in Greater Pittsburgh with a number of independent bookstores, but they're a dwindling number in varying degrees of struggle. So on what I hope is a lazy Sunday for most, the next to last one before Christmas, I'm suggesting hunting down a book you didn't even know you wanted.
First Published December 16, 2012 12:00 am