Abraham Lincoln neither wrote, nor attempted to write, much verse. What little he did write was perhaps the product of a sort of mental exercise—to gratify an impulse to see what he could do.
Writing from Springfield, Illinois, on September 6, 1846, to his former Springfield neighbor, Andrew Johnston, then living in Richmond, Lincoln refers to a promise once made Johnston to ‘bore’ him with another ‘little canto of what I called poetry.’ The 1846 message to Johnston fulfilled this promise, the subject of the poem being Matthew Gentry, the insane son of the leading citizen of Gentryville, Indiana, where Lincoln had lived for some thirteen years, from young boyhood on. In 1844 Lincoln was campaigning in Southern Indiana, and it was at this time that the sad condition of his former schoolmate was revealed to him. The first verse of the Matthew Gentry poem, which may be found in the complete works of Lincoln, reads as follows:—
But here’s an object more of dread
That aught the grave contains—
A human form with reason fled
While wretched life remains.
In the letter sent to Johnston enclosing the verse, Lincoln says: ‘If I should ever send another (poem), the subject will be a “Bear Hunt.”’
Some time later Lincoln wrote ‘The Bear Hunt,’ and sent it to his friend. Whether he retained a copy is doubtful, but Johnston apparently kept the manuscript until 1869, when he passed it on to Thomas H. Wynne, of Richmond. The latter bequeathed it to R. A. Brock, of Richmond, by whom it was sold in 1905 to George S. Hellman, of New York, who in turn disposed of it to J. P. Morgan. The original manuscript, in perfect condition, is now in the Morgan Library in New York.