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Lincoln the poet
Independent scholar believes he's found rumored suicide verse

An independent researcher, housepainter and dog-sitter believes he has solved a Lincoln literary mystery.

Richard Lawrence Miller found an unsigned poem about suicide published on Aug. 25, 1838, in the Sangamo Journal, a predecessor of The State Journal-Register. Miller and other scholars believe that Abraham Lincoln was the author.

Miller is an independent scholar in Kansas City, Mo. His wife, a weaver, supports him, and he works on the side as a housepainter and dog-sitter.

Miller noticed "The Suicide's Soliloquy" a couple of years ago while going through every issue of the weekly Sangamo Journal from 1831 to 1842. He photocopied the poem but recalled, "I just sort of put it aside."

It wasn't until later that Miller concluded a 29-year-old Lincoln had written it.

Miller wrote about his find in the spring 2004 issue of the newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association of Springfield. The newsletter article attracted the attention of The New Yorker magazine, which reported the discovery in its June 14 issue.

Before now, Lincoln scholars had reported the existence of a suicide poem but had never found it.

Other scholars had dated the poem's existence to 1841, the year Lincoln suffered from depression after breaking his engagement to Mary Todd. William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and biographer, reported that the poem had been published in the Sangamo Journal but was later clipped out of the only copy he could find.

Miller, speaking Monday from Kansas City, said he was reviewing letters when he realized the poem published in 1838 could have been written by Lincoln.

In one letter to Herndon, Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed wrote that the suicide poem had been published in 1840 or 1841. Herndon would later write in a letter that Speed had told him the poem was published in 1838.

"This was the thing that got me thinking," Miller recalled Monday.

He checked the date of "The Suicide's Soliloquy" and analyzed it for similarities in meter and style to other Lincoln poems.

"The more I think about it, the more I think he was the one who indeed wrote the poem," Miller said of Lincoln.

Miller is researching a series of books on Lincoln's life from his birth until his nomination for president. Lincoln spent the majority of that time in Illinois.

"I find that the most interesting - is how a president claws his way up to the top," Miller said.

Miller has a bachelor's degree in history and started a graduate program but abandoned his studies to write books. He is the author of "Truman: The Rise to Power," published by McGraw-Hill in 1986.

He began his Lincoln research in 1990. Miller lived in Springfield from January until May 2003 doing research for his books.

Miller approached Kim Bauer with his theory that Lincoln could have written "The Suicide's Soliloquy." Bauer is the Lincoln curator for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Bauer agreed that the possibility is strong Lincoln wrote the poem.

Bauer said Monday, "The basic sentence structure and the words that are used are certainly well within the parameters that Lincoln wrote a lot of his poetry."

Encouraged by Bauer's response, Miller submitted his article about his discovery to Tom Schwartz, the state historian and editor of the newsletter that published Miller's piece.

Schwartz also believes Miller's theory is plausible.

"We all know that Lincoln had his moods, was a depressive personality," Schwartz said. "And this lends credence to what people have reported, both his contemporaries and historians generally concede was part of his personality makeup."

Lincoln liked Shakespeare and the poems of Robert Burns, Schwartz noted, and belonged to a literary club.

"He wanted to write good poetry," Schwartz said of Lincoln. His literary interest "showed this kind of intellectual curiosity that served him well as president."

Schwartz admitted there is risk of being wrong with any claim that Lincoln was the author of an unsigned piece of writing. At some point, Schwartz said, a computer program will be developed to analyze Lincoln's writing style and evaluate such anonymous pieces.

But Schwartz wanted to let readers of his newsletter reach their own conclusions about the suicide poem.

"My main interest is to get it out there and to have people know of its existence and to start discussing it," he said.

Lisa Kernek can be reached at 788-1459 or lisa.kernek@sj-r.com.

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