Picking up where I left off in my last post about my Lincoln piece, the second movement uses a wonderful letter that I think of as being in Abe’s stand-up comedian mode. It’s dated April 1st, and it spins a yarn – part tall-tale, but based in fact – about a failed attempt at courtship. Lincoln seems to be having fun at the expense of the woman’s unfortunate appearance, but in the end he makes it clear that the joke is on him:
In the autumn of 1836 a married lady of my acquaintance proposed to me that I wed her sister. I accepted the proposal, feeling confoundedly well pleased with the project. I had seen the said sister some three years before, thought her intelligent and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding through life hand-in-hand with her.

In a few days we had an interview, and, although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her. I knew she was oversize, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff. I knew she was called an “old maid,” and I didn’t doubt at least half of that description, but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, — for her skin was too full of fat to permit of its contracting into wrinkles – but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years; and, in short, I was not at all pleased with her. But what could I do? I had told her sister that I would take her for better or for worse. “Well,” thought I, “I have said it, and, be the consequences what they may, it shall not be my fault if I fail to do it.” At once I determined to consider her my wife, and this done, all my powers of discovery were put to work in search of perfections in her which would balance her defects. I tried to imagine her handsome, which, but for her unfortunate corpulency, was actually true. I also tried to convince myself that the mind was much more to be valued than the person, and in this she was not inferior to any with whom I had been acquainted.

All this while, although I was fixed “firm as the surge-repelling rock” in my resolution, I found I was continually repenting the rashness which had led me to make it. I now spent my time in planning how I might get along in life after my contemplated change of circumstances should have taken place, and how I might procrastinate the evil day for a time.

After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could, I concluded I might as well bring it to a consummation without further delay, and so I mustered my resolution and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered, No. At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill became her under the peculiar circumstances of the case, but on my renewal of the charge I found she repelled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same want of success.

I finally was forced to give it up, at which I very unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and also that she, whom I had taught myself to believe nobody else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness. And, to cap the whole, I then for the first time began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her.

Others have been made fools of by the girls, but this can never in truth be said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself.

I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason – I can never be satisfied with any one who would be blockhead enough to have me.

Letter to Mrs. O. H. Browning, Springfield, Illinois. April 1, 1838

The concluding punch line was famously stolen by Groucho Marx a century later.

For those who may be interested in such things, I’ve set this letter as a scherzo that is inverted halfway through, as the tables are turned on the narrator.

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