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4 February 1953 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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A Classic American Myth
6 November 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

It is a story we all hear, even though (by the time we grow up) we realize it is as fictional as that of the Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn. But it such a tragical - sweet story that we want to believe it for the sake of the "fella" involved.

The story is this: In the year 1831 Abraham Lincoln moved to the town of New Salem, Indiana. While there he made a living as a postman, and began practicing law with Judge Bowling Greene. Lincoln had many friends in the village, but was a lonely figure, until he met the daughter of one of his landladies, one Ann Rutledge. Some mutual sympathy between Abe and Ann kicked up, and they fell deeply in love. They were planning to get married. But Ann died of a sudden illness. Abe became very melancholic (according to his friend and biographer William Herndon), and even threatened suicide. Lincoln's friends came to his assistance to get him through his bad time. Nearly nine years later he met Mary Todd Lincoln, and eventually married her - but he never loved Mary as much as Ann.

Lost love is always really affective for fiction lovers, but rarely is it totally true. Such is the case with the Lincoln-Rutledge affair. There was a young woman named Ann Rutledge, and she probably did know Lincoln. But there is no evidence of a great, moving love affair between Ann and Abe. The "evidence" was gathered by Lincoln's future law partner and friend (and hagiographer) William "Billy" Herndon. Herndon was a loyal friend to Lincoln, but he was a heavy drinker who was not liked by Mary Todd Lincoln (and who disliked her equally). When he wrote his biography, it was his intention to make Abe more sympathetic, by making Mary an unstable shrew (Herndon would later assist Mary's surviving son Robert in having her locked up in an asylum for a year "to preserve the family estate she was squandering"). The "evidence" for the love affair were vague stories by elderly people who thought that Rutledge's relations with Lincoln was closer than being friendly neighbors.

This episode of "Cavalcade of America" probably swallows the story completely. They are not alone. Edward Arlington Robinson wrote a poem about Ann Rutledge in his "Spoon River Anthology". D.W. Griffith used the story in his sound movie, ABRAHAM LINCOLN. It is sad and sweet to think of young Abe having a girlfriend...of the might have been to his life if Ann had lived. But the story, unfortunately, is false. However, as John Ford's newspaper man (Carleton Young) says in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, "If you have a chance to print the truth or the legend, print the legend!"

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