- Of Nancy Hanks Born:Meridel LeSueur's Abraham Lincoln
Newly reissued, Meridel LeSueur's books about the Lincoln family, Nancy Hanks of Wilderness Road (1949) and The River Road: A Story of Abraham Lincoln (1954), demonstrate that writing for children offered her—as it has offered other women writers—a forum as well as a livelihood.1 Her literature for children preserves the poetic expression of a political and social radical by suggesting that Lincoln's status as mythic father figure derives from the political consciousness of his mother and stepmother. Nancy Hanks of Wilderness Road is the only children's biography of Lincoln's biological mother, about whom little is known except for her pioneer experience and membership in a Baptist church opposed to slavery (Oates, With Malice, 6). The River Road presents Lincoln's stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, as an important figure in his moral development. She was the only member of his family for whom Lincoln retained affection after he had become a prominent public figure (Oates 206). LeSueur's emphasis on Lincoln's two mothers contrasts with his own silence about Nancy Hanks; it also contrasts with the silence about the two women in the best-known United States children's book about Lincoln, Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaires's Abraham Lincoln (1939), where Nancy Hanks and Sarah Bush are not mentioned by name. Even within the context of today's feminism, some readers might find disturbing LeSueur's recognition of the power women's fertility could have if mothers understood their relationship to the political collective rather than to the nuclear family alone.
The roots of LeSueur's children's stories of the fifties lie in personal experience recognized as profoundly political. In her biography of her mother and stepfather, Crusaders (1955), LeSueur chronicles her own family history:
The women were often left alone, the men gone to better fields. The pattern of the migrating, lost, silent, drunk father is a mid-west pattern, and accompanying that picture is the upright fanatical prohibitionist mother, bread earner, strong woman, isolated and alone. My grandmother raised her own children, my mother hers, and I mine.(35)
LeSueur's image of her family is, however, set into a complex historical background. The boundaries of the nuclear family disappear, and her people become part of the great migrating masses of the nineteenth-century United States, believers in a dream continually betrayed and yet renewed because of the vital and triumphant survival of "the seed," the powers of reproduction linked to production in LeSueur's epic vision. The writer found her own family dream in the idea of her mother's leaving a first marriage in which "she had no rights, not even of having her own soul" (xiii) for a life of radical social activism and eventual partnership-marriage with Arthur LeSueur. For Meridel LeSueur, a woman's political consciousness sets the context for reproduction and generativity. Only when the mother understands that she is part of the collective can a strong father who is not an oppressor exist within families. The communalized mother in a sense gives birth to the non-oppressive father.
Characterizing the past as a wilderness where her parents shouted like prophets of old (Crusaders xi) and gave their own children and others membership in a broad, survival-oriented community, LeSueur attributes her vocation as a writer to the advice of anarchist Alexander Berkman, met in connection with her mother's work at the People's College in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1914. "He said the greatest most holy thing was to be a writer of the revolutionary people, to give your life and never betray them. I was thirteen" (xxi). Implicit in LeSueur's work, and in recent recognition of her as visionary feminist, is her belief that she has remained faithful to the agrarian struggle her parents led. Seeing and recording the struggle of workers, she writes, ". . . the landscape changed for me. I was never again struck alone or swamped with private sorrow, never a lone person. I knew we must be human again" (xxii).
The communal idea shapes LeSueur's two children's books on Lincoln: Nancy Hanks articulates...