Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite New Yorker Writers, brings us this lovely literary look at how two letters can make all the difference: Annals of Biography: Angels and Ages: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker
Coming to the end of the book, to the night of April 14, 1865, and Lincoln’s assassination, I reached the words that were once engraved in every American mind. At 7:22 A.M., as Lincoln drew his last breath, all the worthies who had crowded into a little back bedroom in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre turned to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s formidable Secretary of War, for a final word. Stanton is the one with the long comic beard and the spinster’s spectacles, who in the photographs looks a bit like Mr. Pickwick but was actually the iron man in the Cabinet, and who, after a difficult beginning, had come to revere Lincoln as a man and a writer and a politician—had even played something like watchful Horatio to his tragic Hamlet. Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
For the flight home, I picked up James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt,” a vivid account of the assassination and the twelve-day search for John Wilkes Booth that followed. Once again, I came to the deathbed scene, the vigil, the gathering. The Reverend Dr. Gurley, the Lincoln family minister, said, ” ‘Let us pray.’ He summoned up . . . a stirring prayer. . . . Gurley finished and everyone murmured ‘Amen.’ Then, no one dared to speak. Again Stanton broke the silence. ‘Now he belongs to the angels.’ ”
Now he belongs to the angels? Where had that come from? There was a Monty Python element here (“What was that? I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ ” the annoyed listeners too far from the Mount say to each other in “Life of Brian”), but was there something more going on?