Tuesday, September 21, 2021

My hero: Abraham Lincoln by Akhil Sharma

Ordinary humanity … a portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander.

My hero: 

Abraham Lincoln by Akhil Sharma

The 2015 Folio prizewinner on how the US president embraced honesty and happiness

Saturday 28 March 2015


braham Lincoln’s father ridiculed and abused him, and the young Lincoln was surrounded by physical cruelty, especially towards animals – part of life on the American frontier. Yet when, as an adolescent, he was asked to kill a snake, he replied: “It enjoys living just the same as we do.” The response shows a commitment to behaving in the way that Lincoln had decided was right, no matter what other people thought.

After a lifetime of reading Lincoln, what I have learned is that you can choose happiness, and that most of our happiness is based on following the better angels of our nature. It astonishes me how often Lincoln was honest when it would have been easier for him not to have been. Running for the Illinois state legislature, he said he stood “for all sharing the privileges of the government, who assist in bearing its burthens” – a Jacksonian bromide that was expected. And then, though no one was asking, he offered the following sentence: “Consequently I go for admitting all whites to the right of suffrage, who pay taxes or bear arms (by no means excluding females).”

When his beloved son died, instead of sinking into grief, Lincoln spent each evening with a friend and member of the cabinet and they would read jokes to each other from a book. To me, this is a supreme example of how one can be unhappy and simultaneously aware that delight remains in the world.

Though Lincoln said “Do I not destroy my enemies by making them my friends?”, and he lived by this, we can see his ordinary humanity in the instances where he failed. When his tormenting father lay dying, he sent his son a note asking him to visit. Lincoln wrote back: “If we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.”

Akhil Sharma won the Folio prize on 24 March for his novel Family Life.


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002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler 
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm


017 My hero / Jack Yeats by Colm Tóibín
018 My hero / Francisco Goya by Diana Athill
019 My hero / Max Stafford-Clark by Sebastian Barry
020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

036 My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
040 My hero / Annie Proulx by Alan Warner

041 My hero / David Lynch by Paul Murray
042 My hero / Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford
043 My hero / Anne Lister by Emma Donoghue
044 My hero / Jane Helen Harrinson by Mary Beard
045 My hero / Edmund Burke by David Marquand
046 My hero / Shelagh Deleaney by Jeanette Winterson
047 My hero / Christopher Marlowe by Val McDermid
048 My hero / Gwen John by Anne Enright
049 My hero / Michael Mayne by Susan Hill
050 My hero / Stanley Spencer by Howard Jacobson

051 My hero / William Beveridge by Will Hutton
052 My hero / Jean McConville by Amanda Foreman
053 My hero / Alexander Pushkin by Elaine Feinstein
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal

079 My hero / Gene Wolfe by Neil Gaiman
087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
096 My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
097 Lucian Freud by Esi Edugyan
100 Thomas Tranströmer by Robin Robertson
102 My hero / David Hockney by Susan Hill


190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
194 My hero / René Descartes by James Kelman
199 My hero / Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer


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