Literary Daybook, Feb. 12

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published February 12, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 12, it's Gromit's birthday.
-- "The Wrong Trousers" (1993)
by Nick Park, director

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born. Among the many biographies is Carl Sandburg's two-part study, "The Prairie Years" (two volumes, 1926) and "The War Years" (four volumes, 1940). Sandburg researched, wrote and talked about Lincoln his entire life, and he clearly felt an affinity -- their Midwestern roots, their poverty, their up-by-my-bootstraps attitude, their zeal for social reform. Part 2 won the 1940 Pulitzer, the six-volume set has sold over a million copies and the one-volume edition is still in print and popular, but most historians and critics would raise their eyebrows at Mark Van Doren's "the greatest historical biography of our generation." (Though they might not go so far as Edmund Wilson: "The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.") Sandburg based his work on years of research, but he did not provide footnotes, and the skills of the poet sometimes win out over those of the reporter. Thus the factual details of the Lincolns' log cabin that February -- the packed-dirt floor, the leather-hinged door, the hen-feather bed, the relative who described baby Abe with skin like "red cherry pulp squeezed dry" and likely to "never come to much" -- are preceded by this pathetic fallacy portrait of the evening in question nine months earlier, and those after:

"In May and the blossom-time of 1808, Thomas and Nancy with the baby [the older sister, Sarah] moved from Elizabethtown to the farm of George Brownfield, where Tom did carpenter and farm work. Near their cabin wild crab-apple trees stood thick and flourishing with riots of bloom and odor. And the smell of wild crab-apple blossom, and the low crying of all wild things, came keen that summer to Nancy Hanks. The summer stars that year shook out pain and warning, strange and bittersweet laughters, for Nancy Hanks."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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