Abraham Lincoln Returns To Oversee Library Exhibit


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Contact: Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor (217) 333-2177
e-mail: a-lynn@uiuc.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Abraham Lincoln is overseeing an exhibition in his honor at the University of Illinois Library.

An extremely rare plaster life mask of the 16th U.S. president, made shortly before he was nominated for the highest office in the land, is on display in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library during the libraryís fall exhibit, ìLearning About Lincoln at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.î The exhibit opened Sept. 23 and runs through Dec. 23. The Rare Book and Special Collections Library is in Room 346 of the Main Library, 1408 W. Gregory, Urbana. Admission to the Lincoln exhibit is free and open to the public during the Rare Book Libraryís regular hours.

A life mask of Lincolnís feisty debating opponent, Stephen A. Douglas (ìThe Little Giantî), also will be on display. Leonard Volk (1828-1895), who was related to Douglas by marriage, made both masks. The Lincoln mask belongs to the U. of I. chapter of the Zeta Psi fraternity, which received it as a gift from Henry Theodore Thomas in 1909. Douglas sent Volk to Rome in 1855 to perfect his craft. After Volk returned home in 1857, he settled in Chicago and created the mask of Douglas. The following year, Douglas introduced Volk to Lincoln, who sat for the sculptor in 1860.

Lincoln sat for Volk an hour a day for five or six days (perhaps March 30 to April 6, 1860), before court reconvened, when Lincoln was in Chicago arguing the Sandbar Case, the last case he would argue in Chicago. Volk later traveled to Springfield to cast Lincolnís hands, but Volk didnít complete the full plaster statue of Lincoln until 1876. It stands today, as it originally did, in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol.

Volk developed something of a cottage industry around Lincoln and Illinois politics. Prior to working on the full-size statues, he made and sold statuettes of Lincoln and of Douglas.

In addition to the masks, dozens of rare and rarely seen Lincoln letters and photographs and many other documents and artifacts, all drawn from the U. of I.ís world class collection of Lincolniana, also will be on display. Among them is a wooden ox-yoke Lincoln made when he was living in New Salem, Ill. The frame in which the yoke is contained was constructed of wood from the original flooring of Lincolnís Springfield, Ill., home.

Also on display will be a letter from Lincoln to Jesse Pickrell, dated Sept. 15, 1856, which reflects one of Lincolnís first attempts to recruit supporters for the new Republican Party: ìPlease do this quietly, and say nothing about it. Öî

Visitors to the exhibit also will find a photograph of Lincoln, made from an 1858 ambrotype. For the sitting, as the story goes, Lincoln borrowed a jacket from a much shorter man, so the jacket sleeves pulled up well past his wrists. According to a friend, Urbana Judge J.O. Cunningham, Lincoln got the giggles during the photo shoot, causing him to overcompensate with a strained appearance around the mouth. Cunningham made the frame for the photo, purportedly from an oak tree in his yard.

Barbara Jones, librarian of the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, said that a great many elements surrounding the U. of I. -- its founding, environs, scholarly production and Library -- are ìrich with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.î Many of the items in the show, therefore, reflect and document Lincolnís influence on the university since its founding in 1867.

This includes archival photographs of a series of terra cotta relief panels, which depict Lincolnís life and surround the second-story exterior of the U. of I.ís Lincoln Hall. On the panels Lincoln is shown as a rail-splitter, a river boatman, a circuit rider and a savior of the slave, among other things. Begun in 1909, Lincoln Hall was conceived as a memorial to the ìGreat Emancipator.î

In addition, items from the personal papers of two of the nationís most famous Lincoln scholars -- U. of I. history professor James G. Randall (on the faculty from 1920 to 1950) and journalist-poet-author Carl Sandburg -- also will be on display.

Randall published a four-volume biography of Lincoln in 1945 and 1952 (the final volume was published posthumously in 1955). Sandburg wrote the monumental six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1940.

Many items for the exhibit are, in fact, drawn from Sandburgís extensive Lincoln library, which is contained in the larger Carl Sandburg Collection of the Rare Book and Special Collections Library. The Sandburg-Lincoln items include original drafts of several poems Sandburg wrote about Lincoln, two of which were found in an envelope that Sandburg had labeled ìto be published after my death.î The poems had been stowed in a safe-deposit box in Asheville, N.C., along with many other items, and were released by the Sandburg Family Trust in 1994 to the universityís Sandburg Collection.

According to U. of I. English professor George Hendrick, Sandburg had, in his early professional life, ìpresented Lincoln as a man of the people who arose from the poverty of the frontier to great eminence.î

Sandburg contracted in 1923 with Alfred Harcourt to write a 400-page Lincoln biography for young people, but as he began working on the biography, Hendrick wrote, Sandburg ìrealized that some of the material called for a more mature treatment.î On
Dec. 1, 1939, Sandburg finally delivered to Harcourt his manuscript of 3,400 pages. ìWhen Chapter 72 arrived on Harcourtís desk,î Hendrick said, ìthe publisher cast aside all restraint and wrote Sandburg: ëJesus, what a book.í î

In the introduction to the exhibit booklet, former Sen. Paul Simon wrote that the exhibit ìgives students, faculty members, scholars, and friends a chance to almost touch history. And to learn from it.î

The Rare Book and Special Collections Library is open weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Special Saturday hours, 8 a.m. to noon, have been scheduled for Sept. 25. Groups should call in advance.

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