Over at A Lincoln Blog, Brian Dirck recently acknowledged a gap in Lincoln studies and called for someone to do a study of Lincoln and American humor. While he cites Benjamin Thomas’s collection of essays I assume that Brian is looking for a more up-to-date study.
What is it about Lincoln and his legacy that makes people laugh? Personally, I
think it’s the contrast between his dignity and stature, and some sort of
ironically absurd situation. Or perhaps it’s simple iconoclasm. Anyway, it would
be an interesting subject to research. (my emphasis)
If we draw a distinction between the content of Lincoln’s own humor and the way we perceive him I believe that Brian is on to something here. In short, he hits on the comedic foundation of what some philosophers call the problem of the absurd. Here is how the philosopher Thomas Nagel frames the issue in his article, "The Absurd." [From the book Mortal Questions]:
In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretensions or aspiration and reality: someone gives a complicated speech in support of a motion that has already been passed; a notorious criminal is made president of a major philanthropic foundation; you declare your love over the telephone to a recorded announcement; as you are being knighted, your pants fall down. (p. 13)
Nagel goes on to the more interesting question of whether the desire to take ourselves seriously and the way in which "reality" can force us to step back and question what we do renders our lives meaningless. According to Nagel, our ability to step back and question what we do in our daily lives does not reduce to meaninglessness, but that is not really important here. What is important for now is that Nagel seems to acknowledge the humor that resides somewhere between these two perspectives. And Brian is correct in raising this issue in reference to Lincoln.
The very idea of a backwoods farmer with little education and an awkward physical disposition residing in the most powerful home in the country during the most serious time in American history is enough to make one laugh. The image of Lincoln reviewing the troops on horse with his lanky and hairy legs exposed for all the soldiers to see immediately comes to mind. How about the stories of Lincoln spread out on the hallway floor in his home in Springfield or answering the door in a disheveled state? No doubt countless other examples abound. What are your favorites?
The question I have is to what extent – if at all – was Lincoln aware of this tension? According to recent studies Lincoln was incredibly ambitious, but at the same time he was capable of switching gears with relative ease to poke fun at himself. I am reminded of his own summary of his military career swatting gnats during the Black Hawk War. It does seem that Lincoln struggled with trying to balance his ambition – or the seriousness with which he took his public career – with an acknowledgment of the absurd. And he did so with a very effective comedic vocabulary.