Most people, including the man himself, agree that Lincoln was a pretty ugly, even by horrifying, genetically impossible monster standards. Lincoln used to tell of a man who came up to him one day in Illinois offering a present. The present was a knife, and the man said, "I was given this for being the ugliest man in the world; it is now your trophy, until you find someone uglier than you," and Lincoln claims he held onto it all his life. [Sidebar: "Hand Knife to President" is NOT a game you should play today.] He had warts, scars, enormous ears and eyes that looked like they were constantly threatening to sink deep into his face, probably out of protest of his nine-inch nose. There hasn't been a single photograph of Lincoln that has ever showed his good side.
It turns out, that might be the problem. According to his private secretary, John Nicolay, photographs never could do Lincoln justice. Nicolay claimed that Lincoln's features were "too complex to be recorded accurately by photographers, painters or sculptors." He maintained that all art was "powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate gradations of line and contour, light and shade, sparkle of the eye and curve of the lip in the long gamut of expression from grave to gay, and back again from the rollicking jollity of laughter to that far-away look." You would think that this was just the ramblings of a creepily-obsessed sycophant, but a New York Herald reporter agrees with Nicolay's vampire-centric anti-photography theory, saying "I have never seen a picture of him that does anything like justice to the original ... he is a much better looking man than any of the pictures represent." And Horace White, the editor of the Chicago Tribune claimed that he was at one moment hideous and at another had eyes that sparkled with "a countenance that was wreathed in animation" and some even say describing his appearance was "beyond the power of words."
If you read a lot about Lincoln, like I do2, you'll find that all of the reports are like that. We think Lincoln is ugly, but that's only based on photographs which, apparently, are liars. Everyone is saying, "I thought he was gross, but it turns out he's OK ... wait, actually it turns out he's pretty handsome ... hold on, actually, he defies description and it is impossible for any mortal man to accurately describe him and oh my God they should have sent a poet." And then they did send a poet, and it was Walt Freaking Whitman, and even he said, "Though hundreds of portraits have been made, by painters and photographers, I have never seen one yet that in my opinion deserved to be called a perfectly good likeness: nor do I believe there is really such a one in existence." It has been said that his appearance "baffles interpretation," leaving people to use non-physical descriptors when talking about him, like Gustave Koerner, who said Lincoln's "face is unfathomable." Unfathomable!
What does any of this mean? I have no idea, just that Lincoln is apparently a master of face-trickery, which so far puts his mutant-tally at, what, three now? Mr. Fantastic arms, Hulk strength and wizard-face, right?
We made this guy president??
Daniel O'Brien has a whole lot more to say about presidents, and it all can be found in You Might Be a Zombie, now a New York Times Best Seller!