Young Mr. Lincoln (1939): The spontaneously inventive narrator and the shaping of the American story

This plays like what nowadays we would understand as the origins story of a superhero. Lincoln had been long before deified by this point, a surrogate Christ who sacrificed himself to save the Union, in the white telling of his story; it’s the early human incarnation of that deity of the popular imagination that we get, his unassuming beginnings as prairie lawyer.

Lanky in ill-fitting suit and top hat, full of down-home wit and country simplicity, bright but averse to self-serving displays of it, serious without taking himself too much so, humble and kind, this Lincoln can do no wrong.

The story-within-the story is a trial in the second half of the film where he as novice lawyer decides to step in and defend two country boys accused of murder. It’s worth noting here, that he defends these boys not only against mob ignorance but also against state cruelty in court; smalltown prejudice and legalized injustice.

But now see, it’s not enough for Lincoln to be astute and moral; his opponent, the state prosecutor, has to be shown for us to be shrill and petulant, prickly and easily annoyed by contrast to Lincoln who strides around the room cool and composed.

It’s not much interesting in itself. Except for this.

We know the real Lincoln suffered throughout his life from what we now know as depression but was then thought of as a ‘melancholy’ nature. We know he grew up practically a serf, in circumstances not much different to slavery. We know he wrestled personal demons, including thoughts of suicide, had to, if he was to come out the other end. This was known to those around him and he often cut a strange and anguished figure, perceived as he was to have a ‘nervous temperament’.

Lincoln in Ford’s theater is murdered and a folksy ‘good son’ is propped in his place, purged of uncomfortable ambiguity. The need to have a saintly Lincoln simply trumps all.

It is kind of moot and beside the point of course how much actual history there is in a film like this. It has to be viewed in context of its time. An anguished Lincoln probably would not do, not on the cusp between Depression and WWII. And it comes as no surprise, given the context of its time, that a film even about a young Lincoln makes no mention of slavery.

But the thing is, Lincoln matters, as someone who, having broke down, put himself back up together, as someone who having known cruelty and suffering, did not give into despair and self-pity but recognized there was much work to do on behalf of others. And this is not at all the same thing as the all-American story of happily pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

So, staid as a film, clear-cut and reduces complex human nature. Presenting us with a ready-made leader simply robs the story of all its actual importance.

But I’m interested in who the American narrator is from this period, whether he appears as Gable in It Happened one Night, or Gary Cooper in other Capra films. There’s Bogart later.

And what is interesting here, is that using Lincoln in guise and story, this is all part of creating that American narrator, the one who is able to coolly coast through situations and spontaneously improvise on the spot. To whom all of this comes easy, as part of just having good common sense.

So, I would not recommend you go out of your way to see this, there are much better works from the period. But if you decide to, look for the man who wants to remain unfettered by story.



writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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