An Interview with my Father about His New Novel, “Young Lincoln”

 In Culture, Interviews

Lifelong educator and Abraham Lincoln aficionado Jan Jacobi has worked in schools for more than 40 years, beginning at The Harvey School in New York and then a nearly 30-year tenure at Mary Institute and Country Day School (MICDS) in St. Louis, where he served as an English teacher and head of the middle school.

His stories are the stuff of legend. I can recite many of them word for word now. I used to need visual cues, like how his hands would swoop and crest, or how his eyes would brighten. But now I could do it blindfolded. His tales often concern his favorite target age of students to teach: middle schoolers, whom many educators try to avoid like the plague. Now in his mid-seventies, he still devotedly teaches them humanities at the St. Michael School of Clayton, where his love of Lincoln inevitably works its way into the curriculum.

When my father shared several years ago that he was planning to write a book about Abraham Lincoln, specifically for the young adults and middle schoolers he has taught all his life, it sounded imminent and vital, like gravity. The result after seven years and three rewrites is a remarkable historical fiction novel called “Young Lincoln,” which follows Lincoln as a young adult growing up on the frontier in Kentucky, Indiana, and New Salem, Illinois, told in first-person.

To complete this interview, I drove the fifteen minutes from my apartment to my childhood home in Clayton, Missouri, where my parents still live. Mugs of tea in hand, we sat in my father’s study surrounded by hundreds of books. At least half of them are about Lincoln. The family dogs Winston and Casper barked below.

I have gleaned some peripheral knowledge of Lincoln over the years. It may have been when we all piled in the back of the family minivan and drove to Alton, Illinois, where we’ve been many times to visit the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, hearing my father’s stories, or reading his articles that often ran in the Post-Dispatch to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday. Though it happened most through reading earlier drafts of the book. The final piece was compiled through firsthand accounts gathered by William Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner, who traveled across Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois to interview friends and family members about Lincoln and gather their memories after Lincoln was assassinated. It is from their recollections that much of the narrative is formed.

Working with Josh Stevens, co-founder of local publishing company Reedy Press and one of my father’s former students, the finished product is an authentic, thoroughly engrossing first-person narrative of Lincoln’s early years and life on the frontier. In the following conversation, we sift through the writing process, the value of solitude, Lincoln’s childhood and how he made it through a number of painful trials and tribulations.

To purchase a copy of “Young Lincoln,” visit Reedy Press or Amazon.

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Jan: Make sure to cut me off if I talk too much.

Jorie: So most of the typical questions someone would ask, I already know the answers to. One thing I wanted to ask was—[gets flustered]. This is so weird to be interviewing you like this. Is this weird?

Jan: [Inexplicably begins waving his arms above his head]

Jorie: What are you doing with your arms?

Jan: I’m saying, “Go for it. Don’t worry about it. Let it roll.” Though I will say, as I say to everyone, this book wouldn’t exist if you and Josh [Stevens] hadn’t suggested trying to write it in first person. The project would have died. It would have just sat there in third-person with a story that’s completely stuck.

Jorie: I will say, I’m very pleased you moved past your initial stubbornness about that. You were pretty resistant to the idea at first.

Jan: Well, I didn’t think I could do it. There is something about this I’ve learned, which is that—as historian David McCullough says—this material has to marinate. In this room, with all of these books, all of the research—this is about 30 years worth of marinating. That helps narrow down how to handle the voice, and what Lincoln may be thinking and feeling in various scenes. That’s how you can get inside him. And when you and Josh really pushed me to do first-person, I put it aside for about six months, and then that summer I said, “OK. I’ll try this.” And from there, it was really editor Katherine Dragan who pulled the butterfly out of the chrysalis; she’s brilliant. And I could tell she believed in the story.

Jorie: I actually just listened to the interview you did with Tom Ackerman on KMOX, who’s another one of your former students. And I didn’t know this before reading this book, but throughout Lincoln’s political career he was up against a number of failures, like how he didn’t get elected to the state Legislature the first time he tried.

Jan: It’s true. When he finally got to Springfield, what he really wanted was to be elected to Congress. He really thought he had no chance to be president. And if you’d asked him what his ideal job would be, he’d likely have said being a senator from Illinois.

Jorie: Also, his humble upbringing—which I knew about from some of the earlier drafts I read, but the texture of frontier life and how he grew up—is filled in so beautifully in the book. Things like how he grew up in a log cabin with a dirt floor. So even after he’s elected to the state Legislature, he has already moved well beyond what the expectations of him were.

Jan: Absolutely. When he was a teenager in Indiana, I think that’s also where he uncovered his first real interest in politics. He read the newspapers faithfully and had a few friends who were engaged in politics. Then when he went to New Orleans for the first time; there were a number of political issues he became aware of. And his first thoughts about practicing law came from those travels as well.

Jorie: Is it true that he—not that he fell into politics, but that he was pushed into these leadership roles by people rallying around him? For example, there’s a scene in the book from the Black Hawk War, a conflict between settlers and Native Americans, where he’s nominated captain of his company in the volunteer militia. Did at least part of his success come from people who just really revered and respected him?

Jan: I think that’s it. There’s another scene I have in the book with Robert Rutledge, who was one of the founders of the town of New Salem, who talks to him after their Debate Society one night and says, ‘We think you ought to run for state legislature.’ And Lincoln says, ‘But nobody knows who I am,’ and he brushes off the idea. But Rutledge says to him, ‘Even if you don’t win, they’ll start to get to know you.’

Jorie: When he arrives in New Salem, after just having left his home and family, in the story he refers to himself as “a piece of floating driftwood.” And even at that point, young as he was, he had already experienced so much loss. His mother died when he was nine, he had a younger brother who died as an infant, his beloved sister Sarah died in childbirth when he was 18. In modern society, we’ve built so many layers between ourselves and death. But for them on the frontier and during this time in history, it was just right in front of them. Those layers didn’t exist. Even when Lincoln’s family members died, there was no embalming or anything like that. They built coffins out of wood and buried them.

Jan: It’s an interesting observation. William Greenleaf Eliot and his wife had 14 children and only five of them lived to adulthood. Nine of them died young. When I discovered that, I remember thinking, ‘Well—maybe they thought that was just part of the deal back then.’ But I later attended a lecture on Eliot in which one of the presenters said, ‘Each one of those nine children they lost was a tear at them as much as it would be at any of us if we lost a child.’ I had originally thought it was a culture where people were inured to death. And there’s a yes and no with that. Yes in that death was more common, but when it’s your own child or family member or spouse, it still hurt just as much.

Jorie: So for Lincoln, nearly everyone in his family whom he really loved died—his mother and sister—and the person with whom he had the most contentious relationship, his father, lived to be 73.

Jan: It’s interesting, of those people in his youth, the person who had the strongest impact on him was really his stepmother. Lincoln did not go to his own father’s funeral. In fact, his stepbrother wrote him and invited him to come visit when his father was on his deathbed, and in response, Lincoln wrote him back and said, “If we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.” However, when he got elected president in November of 1860, before he went to the inauguration in late February of 1861, he went to visit his stepmother. He took a little carriage out to the country in Indiana and spent an afternoon with her. He really loved her. She wrote later in her recollections to William Herndon that she had a feeling she’d never see him again.

Jorie: That difficult father-son relationship is captured so well here. There’s this great scene in the book where Lincoln and his father are doing work on the farm and a soldier passes through. Lincoln, who even at that point is definitely more intellectually curious than his father, corrects him in front of this soldier, and, in response, his father shoves him to the ground. Is that a true story?

Jan: Yes. Again, Jorie, one of the things we all have to realize is the material I am using is reminiscences. This is one that Herndon gathered when he was speaking with people in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois between 1865 and 1866. But this particular story in the Herndon collection fits with recollections that his father could be very moody and crabby with him. In this case, his father says to him, “Don’t you correct me,” and he pushes him. It knocks him over, and he’s crying. His father does that to show him who’s boss.

Jorie: It seems that because Lincoln—and maybe I’m over-inferring with my 21st-century sensibility—but because he doesn’t want to be a farmer like his father, that he wants to do something more ambitious, that his father walks around with this sense of scorned pride.

Jan: I don’t think his father even begins to understand him. I think that’s the deepest thing. He’s intellectually beyond his father; he’s more sensitive; he’s kinder. On the other hand, there are moments which I made sure to include, where his father is sweet to him. The Herndon recollections are pretty tough on his father. There are some Indiana historians who point to evidence portraying him in a more positive light. So there are different views of these people, which can depend on the historians you rely on.

Jorie: Do you think Lincoln was ever tortured by guilt for never having forgiven his father? That he never tried to repair that relationship?

Jan: No. I really don’t think Lincoln was tortured by anything.

Jorie: How did he manage that? He had so many torturous things happen to him.

Jan: Well, he—I think through all of this to a degree, he is what I call emotionally cauterized.

Jorie: What does that mean?

Jan: Well, it means that—if you’ll pardon me a personal note, I know for myself, when my own parents divorced—especially as a young person, and I was 10 years old at the time, you cauterize your emotions. Which is to say, you hold back. And that is by far not the most horrendous thing to happen to anyone. But interestingly enough—and I’d see this in my work—I’d have the saddest things known to man happen in my office, and I can only think of one time when I cried with a set of parents. I had to be emotionally detached. I think of my brother, your uncle Peter Pop, who is a doctor. Even though he was deeply involved in the well-being of his patients, he also had to be emotionally detached.

So all of that loss Lincoln experienced early in life caused him to put a bit of a shield over himself in relation to the world, I think. Which is perhaps why—and this is the central question of Lincoln to me—is in 1861 to 1865, how does he handle all of that stress? The horror and bloodshed of the Civil War? Those inept generals, and a wife who has lost it because of the death of Willie, their dear son, without a friend he can turn to? I’m actually reading a book by Franklin Roosevelt where Roosevelt says, “As president of the United States, anyone who walks in your door wants something from you.”

Jorie: So he can’t trust anyone.

Jan: That’s it. Lincoln’s closest friend in Washington was probably secretary of state William Seward. Lincoln would go over to Seward’s house late at night, and they would talk in front of a fire. But—as I’ve always said, remember—it was Seward who was drinking the brandy; not Lincoln.

Jorie: That actually was going to be the original framing device for the whole story, I remember: Lincoln telling his story to Seward.

Jan: It still is, to a degree. I think Josh and Kathleen did a really nice job of paring that back. You can infer from the preface that he’s president, because he says, “I never thought I’d be president. I still don’t think of myself as president. At most, I see myself now as having been an instrument of purpose.” Which I think he did feel. So you would infer that this story is told by a Lincoln who is probably about six months away from being killed.

Jorie: Narratively, it comes out so strongly because the prose, the way its written, is different from the dialogue. How did you develop your ear for that?

Jan: Jorie, I have to say, I think it’s just—it’s the kind of thing a writer does without thinking about it. This was my first time writing a novel, and interestingly enough, I’ve always had friends say I’m good at dialogue. You and I have talked about this. You’re better at actually plotting the thing out, and I’m good with dialogue. I’m kicking myself a little bit because when I was young, I think I really wanted to be a playwright. I wish I’d gone that route, if I’d been any good.

Jorie: You could still be a playwright. This book could be a play.

Jan: It’s interesting that you say that. In this volume, he ages from six to about 28. And as it went on the goal was to have the prose become a little more involved and complex to reflect that the narrator is growing. So at the beginning you have the way he speaks and it sounds like—

Jorie: Kain’tuck! (Kentucky)

Jan: Yes, that’s right. And then his prose evolves from there.

Jorie: There are also many things about his struggle as a young person that are still relatable, over 150 years later: his struggle to figure out who he is and who he wants to become. He could easily have become a farmer and that would have been the end of it. But it sounded like he had something intuitive within that pushed him further.

Jan: That’s a very good anvil we can use to sort this out. I do have a scene in the book where he is with Ann Rutledge for almost the last time before she dies, and he has this reverie in which he thinks he could marry her, have a homestead and be a family man. That, of course, is fictional. It was a feeling I had for him. On the other hand, Herndon, who knew Lincoln for 20 years called his ambition the engine that would never quit. Which is really from the later 1830s to the middle 1840s; the last 25 years of his life. Earlier, his goal is more to just make something of himself. That’s reflected in the scene after Ann has died and he’s with Bowling Green, who says, “We’re worried you’ll take your own life.” And Lincoln basically tells him not to worry about that—that he still wants to make a name for himself.

Jorie: Did he really have suicidal thoughts?

Jan: No one knows. There are two times in his life when his friends were worried about that. The first is after the death of Ann Rutledge, and the second is when he’s actually engaged to Mary Todd, and then he starts having doubts about whether to go through with the marriage. He decides to ask her to release him from the engagement, and she does.

Jorie: He didn’t want to marry her.

Jan: Right. And there are a whole bunch of possible reasons for that. Once she releases him from the engagement, he goes into a profound depression for about two months. Really profound. He doesn’t even go to the state Legislature; he is just miserable. That’s the other point at which some of his friends worried about suicide. He does also say, “You can expect to find me hung from the nearest lamp post,” during a particularly low point of the Civil War. But I don’t believe he was suicidal. I believe he was deeply melancholic.

Jorie: That’s what you call it in here, which to me read as the myriad forms of his depression. It comes up in the book when he says things like, “I felt the melancholy,” and, “I felt the sadness.” You can see it developing early, and then it gets exacerbated as he continues to grow up.

Jan: That comes from also having known Senator [Thomas] Eagleton [former Democratic senator from Missouri]. At one point when we were working on his autobiography, I asked him about his depression. He didn’t want to talk too much about it. But what he did say was that it would ooze in and ooze out. And nothing you did could stop it. You just had to roll with it, and then it would eventually ooze out. I hint at that when Lincoln goes on his walks; that ever so gradually, it lifts. His aloneness is a good thing. He spends a lot of time walking, observing nature, and having a sense of the goodness of the world. And I think that helps him with his depression.

Jorie: Even when he’s young, you can see in the book how he takes that alone time—whether he’s walking or running in the woods with his dog. Which feels really relevant now, because—not to sound like an elder stateswoman—but modernity and social media don’t emphasize the value of being alone, or even really permit for it, do they?

Jan: It’s the worry of a lot of people who see solitude as a very powerful part of one’s life. If young people don’t learn that, it’s not a good thing. On the other hand, I hope not to de-emphasize in the book how much fun he has with friends. His best friend growing up, Austin, for example. He loves romping around through the woods with him. They just have a ball. He also has school friends, and when he’s in New Salem he makes a lot of new friends. That’s a really important part of his journey. He really grows up in his 20’s. The “piece of floating driftwood” bit is actually his own phrase for himself, which he uses when he first comes to New Salem. That’s how he arrives, and then six years later he leaves having been elected to the state legislature, licensed to practice law in the state of Illinois and is also a law partner with John Todd Stewart, who was a big deal in Springfield.

That growth from 22 to 28 happens really because of his mentors, I think: Bowling Green, Robert Rutledge, Jack Kelso, Mentor Graham. That little town had some very forward-looking, bright people. He listened a lot and their wisdom. Jack Kelso was very well-read and had memorized Shakespeare and Robert Burns, which is where Lincoln gets his initial love of those writers.

Jorie: Ah, right. In the book he reads a Robert Burns poem and calls it the closest thing to his religion.

Jan: He does. And that comes from Herndon too. A good friend recalls talking to him at one point and asks him, “Lincoln, what is your religion?” And Lincoln says, “It’s Holy Willie’s Prayer” by Robert Burns. In that poem, Burns is angry about this Presbyterian view of the world. He’s asking, ‘What kind of a God takes certain people and damns the others to hell?’ For Lincoln, it’s inferred that one of his problems with Christianity is that he doesn’t believe in eternal damnation.

Jorie: It’s also clear from the book that his skepticism with religion started forming really early. There are some great scenes in the book that pay tribute to that, like when his mother is reading the Bible aloud and he has all sorts of questions. What do you make of Lincoln’s spirituality and how he conceives of a God? Or does he at all?

Jan: I had the opportunity to ask Richard Norton Smith, the first director of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, about that. He simply said, “Lincoln had his own religion.” And I think that’s right. Lincoln does say at one point—and this is a direct quote— “When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and thy neighbor as thyself’ that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.”

I had the opportunity to meet Lincoln scholar Gary Wills in person as well, who is just brilliant. He wrote a book called “Lincoln in Gettysburg,” and at a conference during a Q&A he said, “When you’re dealing with Lincoln, you have to realize that he is a genius.” The pieces start fitting, when you think of it like that. Douglas Wilson, another Lincoln scholar, said to me, “I see him as a literary and an intellectual genius.” Doris Kearns Goodwin says he was a political genius. The Howard Gardner scale of intelligences scale of intelligences has two very interesting one: they are interpersonal intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence, or your relationship with yourself. I think Lincoln was a genius in both of those areas. Everybody loved him. But he was also a genius when it came to relating to himself.

Jorie: Developing a relationship with ourselves is the thing so many of us miss, I think.

Jan: That’s right. It’s hard. And nowadays, there are people who can tell us what’s rolling around in our brains. He was really his own cognitive therapist.

Jorie: Do you think Lincoln would have benefitted from a therapist?

Jan: Hmm, good question. I do know that of our modern innovations, Lincoln would have loved technology. He would have used data unlike any of us have ever seen. He loved inventions—he had a patent on some sort of machine that got boats off of sandbars in the rivers. But therapy? Well, as we know, the only way therapy works is if you work with the therapist and accept the process. I think Lincoln was likely too private to really have done that.

Jorie: When you began writing this book, you said you wanted a book that your students could read. But what is it about this story and this book that students need to hear?

Jan: I think they need to hear that the president of the United States, our greatest president, a marble icon in Washington—was once a young person very similar to them. I think it’s also important for them to see him as someone who had to deal with tremendous loss. Particularly in adolescence, I think young people have secret sorrows. If not a loss in their immediate family, they lose pets, grandparents and people close to them. Maybe a romantic crush falls apart. All of those things really hurt. And here’s a man who had the same feelings. I think it’s also very important for them to realize that Lincoln was able to survive those four years of the Civil War because he had this ability to be alone, and yet to see it as solitude. Not loneliness. There’s a wonderful quote from Shelby Foote, who writes, “The curious thing about Lincoln to me is that he could remove himself from himself as if he were looking at himself… a very strange, eerie thing.”

That’s exactly what I think. He was able to exist and have this part of himself that was for solace. Not just solitude, but solace and reflection. It’s a very complicated thing. But he is human: he gets nervous around girls, he has religious doubts, he has a wonderful sense of humor and loves being with the boys. Yet he has this ability to be apart from others, and comfortable with himself in that space. I think those are very powerful things. He also experiences strong conflict with a parent, which many people go through.

Jorie: I know nothing about that.

Jan: Ha!

Jorie: Though it’s a young adult book, there is quite a bit of violence—which sounds like how it was at that time in history. Even the first scene, we discover Lincoln’s father helplessly watched as his father, Lincoln’s grandfather, was killed by a Native American right in front of him when he was nine years old. It frames the story as having a level of sympathy for his father. There’s the Black Hawk War, death, disease, and a number of difficult pills to swallow. It’s just so sad.

Jan: I think it was a time in history—similar to Laura Ingalls Wilder—where we can’t begin to imagine what all that was like.

Jorie: Interestingly, this story has a lot of similarities with that kind of life.

Jan: People have been kind and suggested some parallels. It’ll be interesting, because the next one is going to be tough.

Jorie: The first one seemed like it was pretty tough too.

Jan: They’re all tough.

Jorie: But it happened. You pulled it out. As a partial aside, I also love that Lincoln loved animals. He had a White House dog he fawned over, and there are great stories about growing up with his dog, Honey.

Jan: There are many stories that confirm that. One night he was walking outside the White House and found a litter of kittens who had obviously been dumped. He picked them up and brought them back to the White House with him. There’s another one about how he was on another walk with friends and a bird had fallen out of its nest, and he was laboring over it trying to get it back in its nest. And at another point he was traveling in a buggy, dressed in his best clothes, and he saw a pig being swallowed into a swamp of mud. He stopped the buggy and rushed to pull the pig out of the mud. He has a very tender heart.

Cover image courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon.

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