Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/395

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377
Understanding of Men

upon his original bent, though with swiftly increasing mentality, who goes steadily forward from the able buffoonery of the speech against Cass to the splendid directness of the speeches against Douglas.

In these years he became a very busy man. At their close he was one of the leading lawyers of the state. Two things grew upon him. The first was his understanding of men, the generality of men. He always seemed to have known men's hearts. This was the gift of his mysticism—the gift which mysticism has often bestowed upon natures predisposed to kindness. Almost inevitably this gift produces sadness. Lincoln did not form an exception. The pity of men's burdens, the vision of the tears of the world falling for ever behind its silences, was as real in this peasant dreamer of our rude West as in that clerkly mediæval dreamer whom Walter Pater has staged so magically in the choir at Amiens. But the exquisite melancholy of the singer in the high church with its glorious windows can easily slide down smooth reaches of artistic contemplation into egoism. The rough, hard world of the West, having less of refuge for the dreamer, made the descent less likely. Nevertheless its equivalent was possible. To stifle compassion, or to be made unstable by compassion, was a possible alternative before the rapidly changing Lincoln of the early years of this period. What delivered him from that alternative, what forced him completely around, turning him permanently from all the perils of mysticism while he retained its great gift, may well have been his years of hard work, not in contemplating men but in serving them. The law absorbed his compassion; it became for him a spiritual enthusiasm. To lift men's burdens became in his eyes its aim. The man who serves is the one who comes to understand other men. It is not strange, having such native equipment for the result, that Lincoln emerged from this period all but uncannily sure in his insight into his fellows.

The other thing that grew upon him was his power to reach and influence them through words. The court room was his finishing academy. The faculty that had been with him from the start—directness, freedom from rhetoric—was seized upon in the life-and-death-ness of the legal battle, and given an edge, so to speak, that was incomparable. The distinction between