Not that the subject is a happy one. It seems that, as a young man, Abraham Lincoln suffered bouts of depression and thought several times about committing suicide. For more than a hundred years, Lincoln scholars had known that Honest Abe supposedly wrote a poem about offing himself, but no one had ever found it.
That is, until Richard Lawrence Miller stumbled upon it a couple of years ago while he was poring over microfilm in the city's old downtown library. And now, the most recent issue of The New Yorker reports that numerous Lincoln experts are lining up to back Miller's claim that he has, indeed, found the macabre, long-missing verses.
Miller is an independent scholar who spends his time researching and writing highly respected, if not extremely lucrative, books while his wife, Nancy Clark, pays the bills with her hand-weaving business. Unlike other historians, Miller doesn't work out of a university and therefore doesn't waste most of his time dealing with faculty red tape and classroom obligations. He established his reputation as a lone-wolf researcher nearly two decades ago with a book on Harry Truman's early political life, and except for the occasional house-painting job to help with the bills, he's stuck to his favorite routine: amassing huge amounts of research for writing projects.
In the late '80s, for example, an offhand comment from a state representative about the drug war launched Miller into a years-long investigation of drug policy. (He favors legalization.) Miller became so knowledgeable about the subject that other researchers started citing him as an expert on narcotics. His latest book, 2003's The Encyclopedia of Addictive Drugs, was named one of the year's top science reference books by the American Library Association.
When Richard Miller sets out to learn something, he's pretty friggin' serious.
And that's why he spent hour after hour staring at the microfilm machines at the old library (a dizzying exercise that always made this meat patty's colleagues sick to their stomachs) when he stumbled across one of presidential history's holy grails.
Miller says he's always been interested in Abe Lincoln. The 54-year-old spent five of his earliest years in Illinois before moving to KC in 1957. Even when he was writing his Truman book in the early 1980s, he knew that he eventually wanted to turn his attention to the Rail-Splitter.
Miller finally started working on his Lincoln project in 1990. His aim is to write a two- or three-volume work on Lincoln's early political life, a richly detailed story with enough historical background to put the man's record in context. Too often, Miller says, writers describe Lincoln's life without explaining how his actions and writings reflected what was going on in the world around him.
Miller has spent years immersing himself in the minutest details of 19th-century Illinois. For example, he figured he had to look at every single item published in every single edition of The Sangamo Journal, Lincoln's hometown paper, which began publishing in 1831, when the young beanpole was just 22.
Naturally, other scholars have also scanned old issues of the Journal, particularly those published in 1841, which was when the depressed Lincoln reportedly suffered a serious blow. That January 1, Lincoln broke off his engagement to Mary Todd (whom he would later marry), and sank further into a black humor when he learned that same day that his best friend, Joshua Speed, was moving away for good. Later in life, Lincoln told his last law partner, William Herndon, that he had been so depressed about that "fatal first of January" that he'd written a poem about his desire to kill himself. But no one ever found such a poem printed in 1841.
Miller says he was carefully going through issues of the old newspaper printed in 1838 when he stumbled across a lucid but somewhat creepy poem, "The Suicide Soliloquy," told from the point of view of a man depressed because he's been forsaken by friends and loved ones. The narrator contemplates plunging a knife into his chest, musing:
Sweet steel! Come forth from out your sheath,
And glist'ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!
"I thought it was interesting," Miller tells the Strip, "but I didn't think it was Lincoln's, because it was the wrong year." Still, he recorded it along with all of the other info he was gathering. Then, about a year later, he discovered that Herndon had admitted to being unsure about the year in which Lincoln's suicide poem was published and that it might have appeared in 1838.
"Then I looked at the poem again and realized it was just a perfect match for Lincoln's writing style," Miller says. The lawyerly way the poem's writer examines the logic of killing oneself, as well as the vocabulary, seemed a strong indication that Lincoln was the author. And now, Miller is confident that he's right. Since his announcement of the find in a Lincoln scholarly journal this spring, other prominent historians have said publicly that they agree with him. Others are more cautious. "But no one is saying Lincoln didn't write it," Miller points out.
He says he's stoked about the New Yorker mention. He hopes it will help him find a publisher for the first volume of his Lincoln epic, which he figures should be finished in another couple of years.
Meanwhile, this charred chuck roast found itself surprisingly depressed by Miller's cool detective work. Not by the melancholy in Lincoln's poem but simply by the thought that at one time, this country elected presidents who could actually read and write.