Being Abe Lincoln

Lincoln's features and clothing are stamped on the American imagination—and imitated by "Lincoln presenters" nationwide
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On the porch of the Country Inn & Suites, in Beckley, West Virginia, five men sat in rocking chairs. They were tall men, in black coats and stovepipe hats. They wore beards shaved around the lips. They wore black boots. Gold chains hung from their vest buttons, holding watches tucked into vest pockets. In the lobby were dozens more men like them, on couches, emerging from elevators. One walked from the hotel restaurant carrying a Coke, its red shocking against the sea of antique black. He removed his hat and slipped the receipt for the drink under the elastic band inside.

Last April the Association of Lincoln Presenters held its seventh annual convention, in Beckley. I had heard there would be forty-four Lincolns there, and fifteen Marys. So I flew to Charleston, drove south sixty miles to Beckley, and stood in the lobby of the Country Inn & Suites, gaping at the sight: Black- and gray- and fake-bearded Lincolns, short and tall Lincolns, and a Lincoln in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank. A man in sunglasses who looked like Elvis Presley dressed for a Lincoln look-alike contest, or vice versa.

"If any personal description of me is thought desirable," Lincoln wrote in 1859, "it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and gray eyes—no other marks or brands recollected." About a year later, as the Republican nominee for President, he received a letter from an eleven-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, advising that "if you will let your whiskers grow ... you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin."

These physical characteristics—plus the black garb, the top hat, and the solemn look—are stamped on the American imagination, partly because Lincoln is such an important figure, partly because the rise of photography coincided with his rise to power. The various images of Lincoln—including those that appear on the penny and the five-dollar bill—are simultaneously familiar and, in a word that Lincoln often used, "strange." Something about him beckons others to look harder, to look deeper. Something about him beckons people to do strange things.

I justified my trip to Beckley as research for a book I am writing about Lincoln's melancholy: I thought I would find out how the presenters handle the subject, what they think about it. But really I went because it seemed a chance to see eccentricity distilled to its essence—a chance to put down my books and dwell, for a weekend, in a house of strangeness.

I had been in the lobby of the Country Inn & Suites for five minutes when Jim Sayre, a veteran presenter from Lawrenceberg, Kentucky, walked over and asked, in a voice of Kentucky lilt and gravel, "Are you a new Lincoln?"

"No, sir," I said. (You say "sir" to such a man, seven feet tall with his hat on.) I told him that I had come at the last minute, that I was a writer—and then these words just came out: "I didn't have time to get my outfit together."

"Well, come on," Sayre said, and five minutes later I was in his room upstairs, buttoning up his spare white shirt ("Wal-Mart special," he said), clipping on his spare flat bow tie, and pulling on his spare black trousers. "Always travel with a spare," he told me, less explaining than advising. I said okay and put on the hat.

For the rest of the weekend I found myself a pupil among masters. The slogan of the ALP is the poet Vachel Lindsay's line "Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all." These Lincolns have taken the slogan to heart in the most practical sense.

For instance, they told me that any stovepipe hat will do, but ideally it should be made of beaver for everyday wear—the rain rolls right off—and silk for special occasions. It's a nice touch to carry papers up there, as Lincoln did. Kids like it when you pull down the hat and put something in it or, better yet, take something out. Kids especially like the Grace Bedell letter, about the whiskers.

Speaking of which, the beard should be thick and full, but not around the mouth. It's less a beard, really, than two sideburns saying hello at the chin. But, many Lincolns told me, there is good work for beardless Lincolns.

Work—"gigs," the Lincolns sometimes say—isn't hard to come by. Most of these men became Lincolns without even trying. They may have done a favor for a teacher they knew, or played Lincoln in a community-theater production. And then they got asked again, for a parade or a history fair. They grew the beard, or shaved off the moustache that went with a beard they already had. Then they were ready for the big time—an event at the cemetery in Gettysburg, with more than a thousand people waiting to hear the Gettysburg Address. "Parades are the best," Rick Miller, a Lincoln presenter, yoga instructor, and sales manager for a marking-machine manufacturer, told me. "You can really bask in the love. People smile at you—invariably they smile. And they want to talk to you. People want to talk to a President, whether alive or dead. And it's a babe magnet. There were three women at the parade this morning; I could have danced with all of them."

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Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairsforthcoming from Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

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