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Land of Lincoln : Adventures in Abe's America
Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president and perhaps the most influential American who ever lived. But what is his place in our country today? In Land of Lincoln, Andrew Ferguson packs his bags and embarks on a journey to the heart of contemporary Lincoln Nation, where he encounters a world as funny as it is poignant, and a population as devoted as it is colorful. In small-town Indiana, Ferguson drops in on the national conference of Lincoln presenters, 175 grown men who make their living (sort of) by impersonating their hero. He meets the premier collectors of Lincoln memorabilia, prized items of which include Lincoln's chamber pot, locks of his hair, and pages from a boyhood schoolbook. He takes his wife and children on a trip across the long-defunct Lincoln Heritage Trail, a driving tour of landmarks from Lincoln's life. This book is an entertaining, unexpected, and big-hearted celebration of Lincoln's enduring influence on our country--and the people who help keep his spirit alive.
The question that animates this original, insightful, disarmingly funny book is: how do Americans commemorate Lincoln, and what do our memories of him reveal about our visions of the good life? To discover the answer, Ferguson, an editor at the Weekly Standard and a Lincoln buff, made a long field trip, poking into many of the places where Americans have chosen to remember--or to forget--Honest Abe. He eavesdrops on the Lincoln Reconsidered conference, where a group of "Abephobes" aim to retrieve Lincoln's memory from the distortions of "liberal historians." He considers the "Disney aesthetic" of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., and attends a convention of Lincoln "presenters" (otherwise known as impersonators). Ferguson is occasionally and unnecessarily snide, and a deeper examination of the changing place of Lincoln in mainstream historical scholarship would have added a great deal to the book. Still, Ferguson's conclusions are stirring. He finds Lincoln's meaning best articulated by Robert Moton, an educator whose parents were slaves. With great simplicity, Moton explained Lincoln's greatness: "...in a time of doubt and distrust... he spoke the word that gave freedom to a race and vindicated the honor of a Nation conceived in liberty...." (June)
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April 10, 2008
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Excerpt from Land of Lincoln by Andrew Ferguson
More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American--nearly fourteen thousand in all--and at least half of those books begin by saying that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. This book, you'll notice, is one of them. Yet its subject matter is not Lincoln directly, or Lincoln exclusively. Its subject is really the country that Lincoln created and around which, I think I can show, he still putters, appearing here and there in likely and unlikely places, obtruding, stirring things up, offering consolation, dispensing bromides and bits of wisdom and otherwise making himself undeniable.
So even though this is a Lincoln book and not a book about me--sorry to disappoint you--it might help explain some things that happen in the book later on if I explain at the outset my own association with Lincoln, which runs pretty deep.
I was born in a midsize town in northeastern Illinois, the state that sells itself (to itself, among others) as the Land of Lincoln; its convicts stamp the claim right there on the license plates. My father worked as a lawyer in Chicago, in a firm founded after the Civil War by Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of Abraham Lincoln's sons to survive childhood. I grew up in a drafty old Victorian house on Lincoln Street, a mile or so from another drafty old Victorian where, legend had it, Lincoln himself had spent the night in the 1850s. Riding in our family's Oldsmobile as a boy, I saw this house nearly every day, turning in my seat as we passed, always picturing the tall stooped figure climbing the front porch, removing his stovepipe hat to greet the lady of the house as he crossed the threshold into the cool of the parlor, until the Olds took the bend in the road and the house was out of sight.
During the long humid summers, on visits to grandparents and cousins downstate, my parents would sometimes break the boredom by taking my brothers and me on side-trips to the state capitol of Springfield, an exhausted city of liquor stores and parking lots but to me a place full of wonders. There in the heat we would run a well-worn path from the Lincoln tomb to the "Restored Law Offices of A. Lincoln" to the only home A. Lincoln ever owned, a clapboard house tucked behind a picket fence in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood not far from the capitol building. Once or twice we drove twenty miles out of town to New Salem, the village on a bluff above the Sangamon River where Lincoln spent his young manhood. Its inhabitants abandoned New Salem long before Lincoln died, and a commemorative collection of log cabins had been rebuilt on the site a century later, as a tourist draw. Already, by the time of our visit, the splintered logs of the new buildings had grown gray and brittle from the weather, taking on the faded look of historical artifacts themselves. Our Lincoln diversions climaxed in a long car trip the family took one bright, blissful week along the then-new, and soon-to-be defunct, Lincoln Heritage Trail.
Having been where he'd been, and walked where he'd walked, I became a Lincoln buff, junior division, privileged to indulge (I thought) in a special intimacy with greatness. I cleared my schedule--not so hard to do when you're ten--whenever Abe Lincoln in Illinois or Young Mr. Lincoln was to show up on TV. My favorite book was a photographic album as thick and heavy as a plank of oak, called Lincoln in Every Known Pose. My second favorite was a Yearling children's book called Abraham Lincoln, by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire, a beautifully illustrated biography whose only defect was that it ended before his dark and splendidly heartbreaking death. His photographs hung on the walls of my bedroom. Sometimes at night, wakened by a bad dream, I'd rise from my bed and go to my desk and pull from the center drawer a sheaf of papers written in Lincoln's own hand. I'd bought a packet of these yellowed, crinkly reproductions, reeking of the rust-colored dye that was meant to make them look antique, at a cavernous gift shop near his birthplace. The words carried the force of an incantation--entrancing, if not, to me, thoroughly comprehensible. By the light of the desk lamp I'd read the "Letter to Mrs. Bixby" or the last paragraph of the Second Inaugural, the one beginning "With malice toward none. . . ." I memorized the Gettysburg Address and his sublime "Farewell" to the people of Springfield.
What I mean is, I had a great deal of Abraham Lincoln growing up. I was a buff, and I was not alone.
And then I wasn't a buff anymore. The country had undergone a Lincoln boom in the early 1960s, following the 150th anniversary of his birth and coinciding with the centennial celebrations of the Civil War, and not long after the centennial passed, my interest in Lincoln waned, too. On my bedroom walls Lincoln was replaced by the Beatles, who were themselves replaced in a few years by the languid Susan Dey. Every Known Pose sat stoutly on the shelf, unconsulted, passing eventually to a box in my parents' garage, doomed. I don't know what happened to it, or to the sheaf of Lincoln papers. I seldom recalled Springfield or New Salem. Something similar was happening in the country at large, I think. The great historical amnesia, certified and lamented nowadays by professional educators and tut-tutters of all kinds, was just settling in. Fewer and fewer courses in American history were taught less and less frequently, and those that survived were recast as exercises in multicultural special-pleading or litanies of political grievance. The tut-tutters took surveys and compiled the sad data of what has come to be called "historical illiteracy": fully two-thirds of graduating high-school seniors can't name the half-century in which the Civil War was fought, another third can't identify Thomas Jefferson, 65 percent think Stonewall Jackson was a bass player for the Funkadelics, and so on. Historical tourism, another marker, declined too. The historian Barry Schwartz checked the figures and found a steady decline in attendance at Lincoln sites from the 1960s to the end of the century. More than a million people a year visited New Salem in the mid-sixties, for example; twenty years later the number was reduced by half.
But more than simple amnesia was at work. There was something willful in the forgetting. Americans, particularly the well-off and over-schooled, were entering a wised-up era, where skepticism about the country, its heroes, and its history was a mark of worldliness and sophistication. The historian C. Vann Woodward called this loss of innocence--if that's what it was--the "Fall of the American Adam." Even in Springfield, which clings to Lincoln's memory like a rosary, road signs that directed tourists to the "Lincoln Shrines" were replaced by signs listing the "Lincoln sites." I recall one episode in particular from the 1970s. Talking after class one day, a college friend and I discovered that we had both been buffs as boys, both in thrall to the same Lincoln children's book, by the d'Aulaires. I mentioned the climactic scene, in which young Abe witnesses a slave auction and announces: "Someday I'm going to hit that, and I'm going to hit it hard."
"Yeah," my friend said. "What a load of crap." Historians had discovered that the incident was wholly fictitious, he said--a fantasy. In fact Lincoln had been as much a racist as . . . as . . . Jefferson Davis! His official policy, as president, was to ship the slaves back to Africa. The Emancipation Proclamation was a cynical, empty act that didn't free the slaves Lincoln could have freed and "freed"--here his fingers wiggled air quotes--only those that were out of his reach. All this was, he said, "common knowledge," and in the face of it I realized that the very thought of being a buff indicated a hopeless lack of sophistication--the mark not only of an ignoramus but of a dweeb. You might as well wear a pocket protector and highwater pants.
Of course, Lincoln didn't fall from the nation's esteem altogether. We can't shake him. Indeed, he's fared better than many other of our traditional heroes. He's still on the penny, for one thing. You can still find discussion groups and clubs devoted to him in many large and mid-sized cities, and you can subscribe to a half dozen periodicals with names like the Lincoln Herald and the Rail Splitter. The books continue to pile up. Occasionally one or two of these will prove popular; Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln book was a bestseller in 2005 and may even serve as the basis of a movie by Steven Spielberg. But you can't help noticing, in most of the Lincoln books, an air of narrow self-justification--a wan parochialism. Mario Cuomo, the politician, published a polemic called Why Lincoln Matters, proving that if Lincoln were alive today his political views would be pretty much indistinguishable from Mario Cuomo's. The gifted journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk, who has struggled with clinical depression, wrote Lincoln's Melancholy, proving that the key to Lincoln's achievements was his struggle with clinical depression. Most memorably of all, in 2005, a sex researcher and gay rights activist named C.A. Tripp published The Intimate Lincoln in hopes of proving that Lincoln was an active homosexual--the point being, as another activist put it, "He's ours."
For a century or more generations of Americans were taught to be like Lincoln--forbearing, kind, principled, resolute--but what we've really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, and this has never been truer than the present day. Lincoln hasn't been forgotten, but he's shrunk. From the enormous figure of the past he's been reduced to a hobbyist's eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self-selected subculture, like quilting or Irish step dancing. He has been detached from the national patrimony, if we can be said to have a national patrimony any longer. He is no longer our common possession. That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.
Or that's what I assumed, anyway. Then one wintry morning a while back I fetched the local paper from the front stoop and saw a headline: LINCOLN STATUE STIRS OUTRAGE IN RICHMOND.
I thought: Lincoln? Outrage? And I felt the first stirrings of the fatal question, the question that, once raised, never lets go: "Huh?"
I took off for Richmond a week later. I spent a lot of time there, off an on--long enough to see the statue unveiled and to imbibe the outrage in deep drafts. The chapter that follows this preface, 'When Liincoln Came Back to Richmond,' is the result. I left Richmond convinced that I was at the beginning of a story rather than at its end. I decided to keep looking for Lincoln.
Richmond did something else to me, too. My time among the Lincoln haters, and the briefer time I spent with the Lincoln operators who had commissioned and financed the statue, made me uncomfortably aware of how little I really knew about Lincoln--and made me wonder, more to the point, how we know what we think we know about Lincoln. How was it that a single historical figure, and a single set of historical facts, could inspire such wildly divergent views, held with equal certitude by seemingly sensible people? So the first place I went looking for Lincoln was in books, and in one book in particular. There I discovered a wild and woolly character--the overworked phrase is perfectly appropriate--who stands as godfather to every Lincoln buff, and to every Lincoln hater, too. Learning the story of Billy Herndon constituted a kind of refresher course in Lincoln Studies, which I happily pass on in chapter 2.
Then I started moving again, and I didn't really stop till I reached the steps of the Lincoln memorial--and this is where, conveniently enough, I wind up in chapter 10. The curiosity that pushed me along was part personal and part professional, which accounts, I suppose, for the strange commingling in what follows. Lincoln means a lot to me. He means a lot to the country--or he should if he no longer does. By the end of my travels I was more convinced of that truth than I'd been since I was a boy, reading beneath a pool of light in a darkened bedroom on Lincoln Street.