Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hurry...Now is the Time to Buy...

Evidently, the sour economy has pushed down prices for Lincolniana, which have skyrocketed beyond all normal range in the last quarter century or so. (In his recent book, Land of Lincoln, Andrew Ferguson suggests that the prices soared due to deep-pocketed buyers like Louise Taper and the late Malcolm Forbes.)

A recent auction in the New York city area featured 19 artifacts associated in some way with Abraham Lincoln, and fetched prices that seem rather extravagant: $30,000 for some lamps which Lincoln might have owned and $8,250 for a letter from the mayor of Springfield announcing a holiday for the Lincoln funeral. But Daniel Weinberg, longtime owner of The Abraham Lincoln Bookstore in Chicago, suggested that the items should have sold for much more.

So if you have a spare $100,000, this is the time to buy. Click here for The New York Times report.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Random Lincoln News: Spielberg, Podcasts, and a New Website

Three bits of short information to pass along today. Last week, I wrote about recent information about Steven Spielberg's long-planned Lincoln movie. Earlier this week, Spielberg's publicist confirmed that the award-winning director plans on shooting the movie sometime in 2009. Read the brief confirmation given to a reporter from Entertainment Weekly. Despite the financial and legal issues involved, I imagine that Spielberg will get to do what he wants.

I'm still coming across bicentennial week features about Abraham Lincoln. featured a series of five Lincoln podcasts with scholars like Harold Holzer and James McPherson. (A tip of the hat to Samuel Wheeler at his Lincoln Studies site for uncovering these interviews.) I've listened to the solid interview with McPherson and look forward to listening to the others during upcoming trips to the gym. Here are links to the podcasts:
Earlier this week, I wrote about a new educational site designed to introduce middle school students to the Lincoln White House, sponsored by the White House Historical Association. Last night, I found another new online resource, Lincoln's Commute, sponsored by the White House Historical Association and President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldier's Home. This site, appropriate for all ages, shows some of what Abraham Lincoln would have seen on his roughly three-mile commute in the summer month's between the Soldier's Home and the White House. There is a short film and the ability to learn about various locations and people along Lincoln's normal route.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TV Review: "Looking for Lincoln" (PBS)

Toward the end of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s excellent exploration "Looking for Lincoln," the African-American scholar admits that his examination of Abraham Lincoln had challenged his cherished image of The Great Emancipator. "It's been deeply disappointing to me to learn that Lincoln came to emancipation slowly," Gates laments, "and that he questioned even the basic assumption of the equality of the races."

Then he sits with noted Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, evidently a personal friend (likely given that both historians live in Boston), and has a remarkable exchange with her reflecting on how troubling it was to discover Lincoln's prejudicial attitudes toward race, even as he praises Lincoln's political skill in his actions involving emancipation and racial issues, because of his status within the African-American community as the white man who made civil rights possible.

"Do you know what's so interesting, Skip, in listening to you talk? The problem is not your understanding of what was possible for Lincoln; the problem is the infatuation, the myth, that Lincoln was presented in the first place to you," Goodwin says, getting emotional. "It's not Lincoln's fault that he got mythologized...And I think to just bring him down now to the human being, with his strengths and his weaknesses -- if you could feel that as well as you're saying it, I think you would feel more empathy for him."

"No, but you're right," Gates responds, "it's clear that I don't feel it. I can think it, I can understand it--"

"Exactly," Goodwin affirms over him, "that's what I'm feeling," and suddenly stopping to let him continue, can't finish her thought -- that's what I'm feeling you're feeling.

In the middle of a documentary attempting to detect the historical facts about Lincoln, a discussion about feelings between two historians who are obviously emotionally involved in their study of the sixteenth president. More than that, though, this extraordinary exchange represents the crux of the Lincoln myth -- Americans are as emotionally attached to the iconic Abraham Lincoln as they are intellectual attached, if not more so.

Though I am not an African-American, I know Gates' disappointment with Lincoln firsthand, having gone through my own de-mythologizing of Lincoln several years ago. For a couple of years, I didn't like the man who I discovered was not an idealist but always a practical politician. Worse, he was a rather ruthless partisan hack in his early days, and those skills never faded away, even though his attitude did. (Eventually, I gained a great appreciation for how Lincoln ultimately used his political skills.)

"Looking for Lincoln," a PBS production, is less a documentary than a two-hour visual essay by Gates, a Harvard professor of African-American Studies. Gates intercuts his cross-country travels looking for Lincoln the icon with a mostly chronological presentation of the historical Lincoln. The film moves a good clip, though it never feels rushed, covering lots of ground; Gates interviews a dozen scholars, two former presidents, and others. He visits with Lincoln presenters (people who dress up like Lincoln), and descendants of Confederate veterans who strongly dislike Lincoln. He walks the Gettysburg battlefield, visits the Soldier's Home where Lincoln probably wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. He sits in on a high school discussion about Lincoln in Chicago.

Along the way, Gates struggles to present the personal complexity of Abraham Lincoln, as opposed to the marble icon of the Lincoln Memorial. Most often he focuses on the complexity of Lincoln's racial views, which is understandable given his other research on race in the United States.

The film is a great success, owing to Gates unstinting honesty and his skills as both a historian and a storyteller. Most people will learn a lot about Lincoln and will be forced to think directly about how Lincoln the man relates to Lincoln the myth. If the film has any flaw, it is that Gates' conclusion is a bit underwhelming, but the strength of the film makes up for that.

"Looking for Lincoln" premiered on PBS on Wednesday, February 11, 2009.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Visit Mr. Lincoln's White House Online

The White House Historical Association has released an new online educational site allowing people to visit the White House on January 1, 1863 -- the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Geared for middle school age students, "President Lincoln's White House: An Emancipation Day Visit" allows you to pick one of five roles -- messenger, widow, congressman, diplomat, spy -- and move around a few public rooms at the White House where historical people speak to your character.

I spent a few minutes poking around, and it seems like a good educational tool. It's a bit low-tech (after all, it is a free online program), but it should serve its purpose. The one challenge is that there doesn't seem to be anything for the characters to do except walk around and click on things to receive information -- so I'm not sure how long it will hold a student's attention.

You can visit yourself (or escort a school age visitor), by following this link.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fine Blog Series about Lincoln's Mistakes

In his survey of recent books about Abraham Lincoln published two weeks ago (which I mentioned in this post), longtime New York Times columnist William Safire suggested that there was an overlooked piece of among Lincoln monographs. Safire writes, "But what of books not being written about our 16th president? I'd like to see an anthology of "Lincoln's Greatest Mistakes -- or Were They?"" (emphasis in original).

While not promising a new book, Lincoln scholar Brian Dirck has stepped up to the plate on his A. Lincoln Blog, offering a series of entries on Lincoln's mistakes. As of this writing, he has published half of the list, which he's calling "Lincoln's Flubs," in reverse order from #10 to #6. So far:
Dirck's fine abilities as a historian are on display in his introduction to the series where he carefully lays out his criteria for judging Lincoln's mistakes. Many people, including some Lincoln authors, are rather anachronistic when they view Lincoln, judging him by the morality and/or the worldview of subsequent generations. Dirck promises to not fall into this trap, and based on his other writings, I'm confident he will deliver.

There are several blogs and websites about Abraham Lincoln now in existence, including Lincolniana. Some of them are quite good, others less so. I have long thought Dirck's A. Lincoln Blog set the standard. It offers a good mix of book reviews, reactions to Lincoln in the news, and original features (like this "Lincoln's Flubs" series), and it is consistently thoughtful, intelligent, and entertaining. I am always happy to point interested readers in his direction.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

No News about Spielberg's Lincoln Movie

Long before Doris Kearns Goodwin published her acclaimed Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, Steven Spielberg and his company DreamWorks Pictures acquired the movie rights. (I cannot find a reliable date as to when Spielberg acquired the rights; I find confirmations of this as early as 2001, but I seem to recall rumors about this film about ten years ago.) Since then, the project has idled, with only occasional flashes, such as when Goodwin's book was published in 2005.

Last year, Spielberg himself stoked new rumors about the film when he announced that he hoped to film it in 2009, the year of Lincoln's bicentennial. At that time, it was known that Liam Neeson had verbally agreed to star as Lincoln, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, who was Spielberg's screenwriter for Munich, was set to write the script.

The rumors erupted again this year, as the named players have been questioned about the potential film. Neeson told reporters last month that he was still attached to the film, but that he didn't know anything new. Just last week, Kushner reportedly suggested at a Lincoln forum at Harvard that a decision would be reached "next week," if it was to be filmed this year and released in December 2009 (just in time for awards season).

This has led to lots of anxious speculation this week, waiting for an announcement about the film. However, it looks like the problem is not the script -- reportedly finished -- or Spielberg's intentions -- evidently he still wants to film this movie next. The problem is money, part of the recent squabbling between DreamWorks and Paramount (which bought DreamWorks in 2006). Spielberg has recently cut some of his ties to Paramount (and created tension in his relationship with Universal Studios with a recent deal to distribute movies though Disney), but in the process, Paramount apparently ended up owning the rights to Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Per Slate's "The Big Money," Spielberg is now scrambling for cash to support his production company, fund the Lincoln movie, and convince Paramount to either sell the rights to him or allow him to direct.

As yet, there is no news about whether Spielberg is finding success or not. The folks at IMDB are pessimistic, suggesting that the film is slated to release in 2011. I am slightly more optimistic. If the script is done, and Neeson is attached, and (more importantly) Spielberg wants to do the movie, the problems with funding and rights will probably be worked out. While some people think that the movie has limited financial prospects -- one suggesting that it would be as unsuccessful as Amistad which only grossed $44 million -- I think that it has a better financial upside, especially if the Team of Rivals association is played up. And I think the movie itself has great potential, aside from Spielberg's instinct to be rather stuffy with historical elements sometimes, especially with Neeson as Lincoln. If the right movie executives agree, the movie will get made sooner rather than later.

Friday, February 20, 2009

TV Review Redux: "The Real Abraham Lincoln" (National Geographic)

About a month ago, I reviewed a one-hour special on National Geographic channel called "The Real Abraham Lincoln. On Valentine's Day, NatGeo (as they seem to call themselves) unveiled a two-hour version. My polite description of the one-hour version was "disappointing." Two hours stripped away my reserve.

Awful. Dreadful. A complete waste of time. And I can't believe that National Geographic put their good name on it.

By the middle of the documentary, I felt bad for Harold Holzer, Richard Norton Smith, and Allan Guelzo, who offered interviews for the special. It's one thing to be misquoted. It's another for your quotes to be contextualized by mistakes, misinterpretations, and fraudulent historic dramatizations. How the filmmaker could take their good answers and come up with this documentary is beyond me.

The film, which hurries through the Lincoln biography so that it can focus a third of its time on the aftermath of the assassination, suffers from broad misconceptions about both its subject and its own scope. I stopped counting factual mistakes about 40 minutes into the film. It jumbles the chronology of Lincoln's life, but worse, it misunderstands the context for his life. The historical anachronism of the narration is stunning at times: once claiming that "[Lincoln] sees the railroad as a uniting force that can bind together a vast nation of immigrants in far-flung regions." Lincoln may have been a '60s liberal, but he was an 1860's liberal, not a 1960's liberal.

The less said about the life-action dramatizations, the better. Despite utilizing photographs to the contrary, this film always presents a bearded Lincoln, even in the scene where the 28-year-old moves to Springfield. A low budget might explain some problems, but the assassination scenes -- evidently really important to the writer/director -- are so inaccurate as to boggle the mind. The film shows the purported assassination attempt on Lincoln, but gets every detail wrong. The film shows the assassination, but so misrepresents the setting that one might think the Lincoln's were attending a private theater performance in a converted barn.

This is not a documentary about 'the real Abraham Lincoln,' at least it is not a documentary about the historical 16th president of the United States. Perhaps it's a documentary of Abraham Lincoln, the medical pitch-man. In any event, avoid this film like the plague.

The two-hour version of "The Real Abraham Lincoln" premiered on Saturday, February 14, 2009.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Lincoln Pennies and Stamps Unveiled for Bicentennial

In honor of the bicentennial, the US Mint and the Post Office are releasing commemorative coins and stamps, respectively. The Mint is releasing new pennies with four different reverse images, while the Post Office has released four stamps depicting Lincoln's growth from young man to president.

Here is the official press release -- dateline Hodgenville, Kentucky on Lincoln's birthday -- from the US Mint. And here is the press release -- dateline Washington, though unveiled at Old State Capitol in Springfield, IL -- from the Post Office.

While both of these offerings are obviously appropriate government commemorations of the sixteenth president. But the new penny is particularly fitting, given that the current penny honoring Lincoln was unveiled in honor of the centennial of Lincoln's birth in 1909, which made it the first regular circulating coin to honor a president. The penny continues to feature the famous Lincoln profile by Victor David Brenner.

The four reverse sides, to be released over the next few months, feature representations of epochs in Lincoln's life. The first features an image of the "traditional" Lincoln birth cabin now enshrined in Kentucky. Even though this log cabin has been proven not to be Lincoln's log cabin (which most likely was burned for firewood before he was president), it is still symbolic of Lincoln's all-American rise from poverty to the presidency. The second shows Lincoln the rail-splitter, or Lincoln the reluctant rail-splitter reading instead of splitting the log, which is a good representative of Lincoln's priorities. The third shows Lincoln the orator outside the then Illinois State Capitol (now called the Old State Capitol) where he delivered his famous "House Divided" Address, a key part of Lincoln's rise to national prominence.

My favorite, though, is the view of United States Capitol during the early years of the Civil War, when the magnificent dome on the building was still being built. Not only is this an authentic, and unusual, symbol of the Lincoln presidency, it has symbolic value. Writers then and since have recognized the unfinished dome the potent metaphor of the unfinished Union Lincoln was seeking to preserve.

The Post Office, as it also did for the 1909 Lincoln Centennial, has released first-class stamps honoring Lincoln. Each of the stamps features two images of Lincoln, one taken from an actual photograph and the other an artistic representation of a scene from Lincoln's life. The first shows Lincoln the rail-splitter and features the oldest known photograph of Lincoln, dating to when he was 37 (a few years after his rail-splitting days).

The second stamp, featuring Lincoln the lawyer arguing a case in a courtroom, features a photograph from 1858, take in Beardstown, Illinois while Lincoln was there arguing his most famous case, the murder trial of "Duff" Armstrong, better known as the Almanac Trial. The third stamp shows Lincoln's rise to national fame during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, although the photograph is the famous Matthew Brady photograph shot just before Lincoln delivered his extremely well received address at New York City's Cooper Union.

The fourth stamp rrepresents Lincoln the president, featuring Alexander Gardner's famous 1863 photograph of Lincoln facing straight ahead -- taken two weeks before the Gettysburg Address. The image is of Lincoln the war-time president, a painting of the famous conference between Lincoln, Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and in the unseen Adm. David Porter just before the fall of Richmond in 1865.

The Post Office expects people to collect the Lincoln stamps, and has several ways to buy collectible versions of them (for a fee, of course). The Mint will offer proof pennies later in the year made of the metallic composition of the 1909 penny (also, I'm sure, for a fee) for avid numismatists.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TV Review: "Stealing Lincoln's Body" (History Channel)

"Stealing Lincoln's Body," a new 2-hour documentary by The History Channel, tells the almost unbelievable story of the over 35 year odyssey of Lincoln's body following his assassination. Following the story most clearly laid out in the 2007 book of the same name by Thomas Craughwell, the film by Trey Nelson precisely narrates the bizarre tale of how Lincoln's body was first prepared for burial following his death and how it was moved ten times after reaching its final resting place in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

The most dramatic event during these years, and the source of the title, is an improbable attempt in 1876 to steal Lincoln's body and hold it for ransom. However, this story only accounts for the middle third of the documentary; it took nearly eight years for Lincoln's body finally be permanently buried after his death and then a quarter-century to permanently rebury the body after the failed attempt to steal the body. Certainly the entire story is stranger than fiction.

The film does a strong job clearly telling this story, with a strong guiding narrative and interviews from several experts, including Craughwell, noted Lincoln scholars Michael Burlingame and Harold Holzer, as well as up-and-coming Lincoln scholar Jason Emerson, Jon Austin, Director of the Museum of Funeral Customs (located just outside Oak Ridge Cemetery), James Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and Nan Wynn, the current manager of the Lincoln Tomb.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is the decision to show a "virtual Abraham Lincoln." In addition to some standard modern recreations of events for the film, there are also scenes of Abraham Lincoln that are graphically created from Lincoln images and life masks -- including, most notably, the assassination itself. The effect is odd, to say the least; the rendering, by a production company called Studio Macbeth, looks more like Lincoln than any actor could. At times it was charming; frankly, though, the moment of assassination was eerie. (The company has a blog about the development of this technology.) Odder still, though, is the fact that this technology seems wasted on a documentary that focuses exclusively on Lincoln's body after he was dead.

Regardless, the story itself demands attention. Perhaps it starts of slow, with a description of Lincoln's autopsy, and then a more detailed description of the embalming of Lincoln's body -- a relatively new procedure that had flourished during the Civil War. After tracing the long funeral train journey, featuring ceremonies in a dozen cities, the documentary tells of the various stops for Lincoln's body (and his son Willie's body) while the memorial tomb was being constructed.

Then the action really begins, as a Chicago counterfeiter hatches a plan to grave-rob the Lincoln tomb in hopes of gaining a pardon for his jailed accomplice and $200,000 cash. The plan has notable problems -- none of the criminals involved has experience with this type of crime, and they plan to hide the coffin in the Indiana Dunes, roughly a two-week journey. Still, they might have succeeded if the plan hadn't been discovered by the US Secret Service -- then an agency solely focused on fighting counterfeiting. While the planned theft is bizarre, without this discovery the terrifying thought is that the criminals likely would have stolen the body.

After the break-in, the custodian was fearful of the potential for the body to be stolen in the future. In order to prevent this, he hid the body in the tomb's basement, where it was eventually buried. Indeed, Robert Lincoln, who was aware of these security tactics, privately shed his staunch Victorian image when he instructed that his mother, following her death, was to be buried in the basement beside her husband's temporary shallow grave. A more permanent solution was possible only when it became clear that the entire memorial needed to be rebuilt. This was done and Lincoln was finally buried in a deep, cement vault beneath the tomb in 1901 -- following Robert's instructions, likely cribbed from the burial of Robert's previous (and publicly vilified) employer George Pullman.

The story is fascinating, and this film tells it well. Perhaps the buildups to each commercial break are a little overly dramatic, but aside from this, the documentary is both accurate and accessible. The subject matter is a bit macabre, but otherwise the film is highly recommended.

"Stealing Lincoln's Body" premiered on Monday, February 16, 2009.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

As the celebrations wind down, there is an approaching lull in Lincoln publishing, that looks like it will last until mid-March. Still, there is one new book from a small press releasing this week.

Releasing on February 17

Worthy of Their Esteem: The Timeless Words and Sage Advice of Abraham Lincoln by Iain C. Martin (Cider Mill Press, 2009, hardback, 168 pages)

This small book is a collection of sayings by Lincoln, evidently drawn from his writings and speeches. These quotations are then packaged in color with photos and other images. Martin, an author with several books about military history and a recent book on Civil War quotations, has selected the quotations and provides introduction and context.

There are hundreds of Lincoln quotation books floating around, all of various quality. It is difficult to argue that more are needed, but it is good to know that there are always such books in print for people to discover or treasure Lincoln's timeless words. Personally, I'd recommend books with longer selections, preferably uncut, but these books are fun and usually harmless.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Lincoln Articles at US News and World Report Online

The flurry of events related to the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln should end today, on this President's Day holiday. However, with so much Lincoln-related information last week (and I'm still discovering things), it will take a few days for Lincolniana to catch up.

Several news organizations had special features on Lincoln last week, but it took a while to realize that US News and World Report had a week-long series of online articles on the sixteenth president, culminating with one by Harold Holzer. Altogether the articles are strong overviews of significant topics about Lincoln -- his evolving slavery position, issues about civil liberties, his religious views. Additionally, Holzer's piece is an excellent summary of his own expertise on Lincoln's ability to carefully tweak his public image through visual artists. In order of online publication, the articles are:

  • "Abraham Lincoln's Great Awakening: From Moderate to Abolitionist" by Justin Ewers, a senior editor at US News. In this piece, Ewers gives a solid presentation of Lincoln's shift in his policy toward slavery over the months between his inauguration and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Ewers position, which better takes recent criticism of Lincoln's attitude toward slavery into account, suggests that Lincoln himself needed to be convinced to shift policy. Such a shift gives implies a personal overtone to part of Lincoln's coda to his 1862 Message to Congress, which Ewers sites near the end of his article: "As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew."

  • "Revoking Civil Liberties: Lincoln's Constitutional Dilemma" by Justin Ewers. Attempting to wade through the even thornier issue of Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeus corpus, Ewers focuses on the war-time experience the bitterly divided state of Missouri. For decades, historians have criticized Lincoln's handling of this issue; even those who agree with its necessity and legality often believe there were problems in execution. Ewers ably shows that the suspension of habeus corpus probably was taken furthest in Missouri, in ways that were difficult for Lincoln to comprehend or control. But this unique example is a poor representative of the entire policy, which was mostly successful and well handled. Indeed, it shows the irony of the historical arguments against Lincoln in this case -- Lincoln was fighting a war about the authority of the central government in a republic where state governments probably had more real authority. So Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus required either the military or state authorities to be carried out; in Missouri, these entities had conflicting opinions on how the policy should be carried out, with the state authorities gaining the upper hand, despite Lincoln's efforts to the contrary. (Interestingly, a much stronger question about Lincoln and civil liberties is mentioned by Ewers in the second paragraph and then ignored: Lincoln directly countermanding a Supreme Court decision with which he disagreed.)

  • "Abraham Lincoln: A Technology Leader of His Time" by Henry J. Reske, a frequent contributor to US News. Reske, in this brief overview, points to the aspect of Lincoln's personality that is perhaps the least recognized, his scientific curiosity. Lincoln is still the only president to hold a patent, for a device to raise boats off of shoals and sandbars. (The impact of this invention is perhaps overstated in the quotations by Jason Emerson, author of a recent book on Lincoln the Inventor.) This curiosity had one odd consequence -- Lincoln's attempt to become a paid lecturer with his address on "Discoveries and Inventions." But it had significant impact on Lincoln as commander-in-chief, owing to his interest in weapons technology and his embrace of the telegraph.

  • "Abraham Lincoln, an Everyman Who Saved a Nation" by John C. Waugh, an author with several Civil War books to his credit, including two on Lincoln: One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War and Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency. In this essay, Waugh argues that the secret to Lincoln's greatness lies in his overwhelming ambition and determination to prepare himself for greatness. When the opportunity arrived, in 1854, for Lincoln, he took center stage as a giant ready for battle, writes Waugh, suggesting that by 1861 Lincoln was "a complete package." While I don't necessarily disagree with the general argument -- even if it doesn't quite answer the question of how Lincoln was unique -- I think that Waugh goes too far. Lincoln, it seems, never regarded himself as "a complete package," such that he was always thinking and working to improve himself, regardless of the circumstances he found himself in.

  • "Abraham Lincoln's Religious Uncertainty" by Dan Gilgoff, a senior writer at US News who focuses of religion and politics. This is a strong, though brief, summary of the development of Lincoln's religious views, mentioning all of the significant points of consideration (except perhaps the odd evidence that Lincoln's rejection of his parent's faith began not in adulthood, but earlier, given there is no indication he was ever baptized). Lincoln's beliefs about faith evolved, likely in some ways alongside those of his wife (it seems that she too was a strong-tongued religious skeptic, which I think might have been part of the mutual attraction), as they both matured and experienced the hardships of life, particularly the death of two of their sons. It is very difficult, though, to strongly argue what those beliefs were at the end of Lincoln's life, which is why Gilgoff, I think, settles for the defensible 'religious uncertainty.'

  • "Abraham Lincoln: From Homely to Heroic" by Harold Holzer. Holzer, an expert on graphic depictions of Lincoln, details Lincoln's willing participation with photographers, painters, and sculptors. Lincoln somehow recognized, from an early point in his career, but especially after his 1860 trip to Cooper Union, the power of these images to shape the public's perception of him, despite his poor physical appearance. At the end, Holzer describes Lincoln's careful encouragement of these distributed images as "savvy, disarming, diversionary, occasionally even disingenuous," which seems to me accurate and to the point.
These articles are solid overviews, though there's very little groundbreaking information here. For those unfamiliar with Holzer's The Lincoln Image and similar pieces, however, this essay is a must-read.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

TV Review: "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" (PBS)

The stalwart PBS American documentary series "American Experience" returns to the subject of the sixteenth president with a new 90-minute documentary that offers a fairly straight-forward, and surprisingly straight-laced (even by PBS standards), look at "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln." Having previously done a three-part, six-hour, dual biography of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in 2001, this film on Lincoln's death serves as the series bicentennial year contribution.

Like all of the American Experience films, this documentary by writer/director Barak Goodman has high-quality technical elements, features a clear narration (by Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper), and lots of good interviews. For anyone with a limited knowledge of the assassination, this film offers a basic introduction to the events surrounding the crime. It is especially strong in establishing the fundamental timeline of the night of the assassination and the days following.

The challenge for anybody tackling this particular aspect of the Lincoln biography is that the assassination has become quite a cottage industry, with significant numbers of books written over the years and, incredibly, multiple "assassination tours" offered by guides in the DC area of associated sites. Moreover, some of the information in many of these books, when carefully studied, is suspect when put under a historical microscope.

Happily, the documentary carefully wades through the material and stays, almost entirely, on solid evidential ground, except for a fleeting unsupported assertion of Mary Surratt's innocence at the film's end. And the interviews, liberally used, feature several good scholars and experts; alongside such strong general experts like Harold Holzer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James McPherson, and Allen Guelzo are specific assassination experts: Terry Alford, editor of John Wilkes Booth's sister's memoir, Gene Smith, author of a book about the Booth family, James L. Swanson, author of the popular Manhunt about the chase for Lincoln's killer, and Edward Steers, Jr., who has published multiple books on Lincoln's assassination, including probably the best single volume, Blood on the Moon.

Early on, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are intent on exploring the assassin's motive for the crime, and there is a consistent focus on Booth's rationale for his actions before and after Lincoln's assassination. This focus leaves less time for other interesting and sizable pieces of the story, such as the public reaction and displays of grief during the elaborate two week funeral journey of Lincoln's body from Washington to Springfield. Unfortunately, the film only makes clear that Booth was not insane; the rest of the portrait is incomplete. This highlighted an omission in the film that surprised me; Michael Kauffman, author of the recent book on Booth American Brutus, was not interviewed, nor was there evidence that his careful (if sometimes unbelievable) study of this issue of motivation was consulted.

Aside from that, though, part of the problem dealing with Booth's motive is that the film devotes very little time to the kidnapping conspiracy from which the assassination eventually hatched. The kidnapping conspiracy is mentioned, as is the most particularly far-fetched plan that Booth tried to develop -- abducting Lincoln from Ford's Theater. But the very plausible plan to kidnap Lincoln riding alone between the White House and the Soldier's Home, which the conspirators testified was attempted, is never mentioned.

The reason for this, I suspect, is that the filmmakers don't want to touch the myriad conspiracy theories of who was behind this conspiracy, which have attempted to implicate everyone from Confederate leaders (notably Jefferson Davis) to Union government officials (including Edwin Stanton) to Northern businessmen. However, there is strong circumstantial evidence that Booth was somehow connected with the Confederate Secret Service, perhaps receiving funding and certainly receiving assistance during his escape from known Confederate operatives. Steers is convinced that parts of this conspiracy are highly plausible and incorporated them into his book. If he mentioned them during his interviews, those comments were not used. And I find Steers' logic persuasive.

This criticism aside, the documentary is a solid and steady retelling of Lincoln's assassination. Experts and Lincolnophiles will find almost nothing of note here -- though I was intrigued by Alford's colorful explanation of why Dr. Samuel Mudd evicted the injured fugitive Booth from his house: with his wife and children there, "Mudd simply could not afford a shootout in the family parlor." But it is a serviceable and informative film for others.

"The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" premiered on Monday, February 9, 2009.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why Lincoln? A Bicentennial Reflection

As this, the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth winds down, I'm pausing to reflect on the meaning of this celebration. It's been a busy day, spent watching lots of Lincoln coverage on television, from the Congressional noontime celebration to the (online) coverage of Barack Obama at the Abraham Lincoln Association dinner in Springfield tonight, along with several hours of CNN's special coverage. (I've also been catching up on the PBS documentaries, owing to lengthy Cable interruptions because of weather the past two nights; reviews to come.)

I could comment on the celebration as a whole, at least those parts of which I've been aware and in which I've participated electronically, but I want to try to step back and consider this phenomenon from a broader perspective. (Also, I'm not really capable of giving an objective analysis of CNN's coverage. I missed part of it to watch the Congressional celebration. And, in my experience, a little Soledad O'Brien goes a very long way. Multiple hours of her anchoring coverage was a little much for my taste.) I will include, though, a couple of comments made during today's ceremonies.

The question that kept nagging at me today was "Why?" Why this persistent and pervasive interest in Lincoln? Watching the coverage, I saw all types of people expressing their fascination in Lincoln -- all types of people who have read and thought about the 16th president of the United States. In our society, which has a love/hate relationship with its history -- or at least an selectively passionate, mostly apathetic relationship -- Lincoln is an amazing phenomenon. Why?

In looking at this question personally, I realize that I've been interested in Lincoln so long that I take my interest for granted. What was it about Lincoln that first attracted me? Frankly, I don't remember. My interest goes back to when I was very young, almost as far back as I can remember. Something grabbed my attention, so I started reading about Lincoln. And I've kept reading about Lincoln all the years since.

For most of my life I've admired Mr. Lincoln greatly, though not always. Over the years, especially when I first discovered part of Lincoln's "dark side" -- his cutthroat political instincts and, especially early in his career, actions -- I was embarrassed by Lincoln and even a little betrayed. But I was already committed, and I kept reading. Since then, I've discovered more of Lincoln's dark side, but, in general, I've grown to admire him even more.

But why? Earlier today in her fine remarks, Doris Kearns Goodwin offered one answer to the why: Lincoln's moral example is the source of his enduring legacy. She wasn't talking merely about his goodness or his kindness, but, quoting Tolstoy, his "peculiar moral power." This moral power goes beyond Lincoln's common touch, it goes beyond his lack of malice, and it might even go beyond his status as the Great Emancipator. Lincoln made decisions that most people are, first, convinced they would not want to have to make under unfathomable pressures, and, second, astonished by how consistently wise and prescient Lincoln's decisions were. This attitude is fairly consistent, cutting across age and depth of knowledge about Lincoln. There are no secret stories that explain Lincoln's decision-making abilities or his skills in inter-personal relations.

In fact, this attitude is so consistent with Lincoln that we forgive him his obvious mistakes -- appointing the wrong generals or sometimes speaking out of both sides of his mouth (or pen). We forgive him for his fractured relationships: with his wife, with his father, with his eldest son. Sometimes, confronted with evidence of shortcomings or failings, we even rationalize for him. But mostly, even as we learn these stories, we evidently still think he lived better/wiser/juster than we ever could. Lincoln's moral example has such depth that it keeps giving, which may be why he's been almost instinctively compared to Christ by so many intelligent and religious people. It is impossible to know to much about Lincoln or the context in which he lived.

Harold Holzer offered another alternative in his remarks today; twice, he called Lincoln a "prophet of unfinished work." Perhaps Holzer has published this remark elsewhere or is quoting someone else, but I don't recognize it. Most directly, I suppose, it comes from Lincoln's two unforgettable speeches: the Gettysburg Address -- "It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced" -- and the final paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address -- "...let us strive to continue the work we are in...." Then again, it is an ongoing theme in Lincoln's speeches, partially by necessity -- Lincoln vowed to prosecute the war until the end. But partially it seems to be key part of Lincoln's personality, of the man whose ambition was, in the words of William Herndon, "little engine that knows no rest."

As such, the parallels between Lincoln the man and his herculean task are eerie. Lincoln was always striving to do more work -- even after he became a successful appellate attorney, which should have allowed him to take only cases that came to him, he rode the Illinois circuit for months. His hours as president were legendary; it is almost impossible to imagine him sleeping. There was always more work to be done. And Lincoln was performing that work in service to a republic that in its founding document sought "a more perfect union." Lincoln led a nation in preserving that always unfinished union, leading an "almost chosen people." And in this task, he embodies the American spirit.

There's much to recommend both suggestions, though both can be criticized. They both implicitly suggest that Lincoln's legacy is strong because Lincoln's example still has great meaning for our lives; studying Lincoln can not only make us smarter, but can make us better -- better leaders, better Americans, better people. That has been my experience, too, but I hesitate to push it too far. While it is true that many people see themselves in historical figures -- sometimes to the point that those figures become mirrors rather than people -- some people have a sincere interest in Lincoln that appears distinct from this. I don't think most of the finest Lincoln scholars are looking for themselves in Lincoln; they're sincerely looking for Lincoln.

These answers are unsatisfying, but so are the other answers. Lincoln was the great American leader; yes, but so was Washington or Roosevelt. Lincoln was a great charismatic presence; yes, but so was Washington or Roosevelt. Lincoln was a prime actor in a time of unprecedented national drama; yes, but so was Washington and Roosevelt. Lincoln was the greatest president; yes, but so was Washington or Roosevelt. But neither Washington nor Roosevelt (TR or FDR) has 16,000 books written about them and counting. And those people, and countless others in American history, are fascinating.

In the end, I cannot explain it. Perhaps as I grow older, I will become more self-aware and I can offer a better answer to the question, Why Lincoln? Maybe it is a combination of answers; perhaps Lincoln is more fascinating on multiple levels and in multiple ways than other people. Maybe Lincoln is, as Sen. Dick Durbin suggested at the beginning of the week, "the one truly indispensable American," just as for countless millions, Shakespeare is the one truly indispensable English author, Napoleon is the one truly indispensable military leader, and Jesus Christ is the one truly indispensable example of faith (to compare Lincoln to the other most written-about people). Then again, maybe it's something else entirely. Why Lincoln, indeed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincolniana in the News

Most of the media attention on Abraham Lincoln this week has focused on Lincoln books, Lincoln exhibits, Lincoln TV documentaries, or has focused on Lincoln the man. I have blogged about several of these articles, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out a story from The Washington Post that touches specifically on this blog's namesake, Lincolniana.

Michael Ruane has written a fine article on the continued interest in Lincoln artifacts. Also, there is a corresponding link to photographs of several Lincoln artifacts from the night of his assassination.

2009 Lincoln Prizes Announced

Gettysburg College has announced the winners of its annual Lincoln Prize, which honors the best scholarly work of the previous year on Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War era. The award has been given annually since 1991, and previous winners have included David Herbert Donald, Allen Guelzo, Douglas Wilson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the late Don Fehrenbacher, and the late Philip Paludan.

This year's award honors two books, James McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief and Craig Symonds' Lincoln and His Admirals. I have not read either book, but am looking forward to both of them. (Interestingly, I am currently reading the 2007 Lincoln Prize book, Lincoln's Sword by Douglas Wilson.) This prize shows the recent scholarly interest in Lincoln as a military leader, something that has been overlooked -- the last generation has really focused, I think, on Lincoln the political leader, certainly a related topic, but not identical.

Read the full news release here.

The awards, which have recognized truly outstanding work for almost two decades, are very prestigious -- and have financial repercussions. Not only do the award winners receive a cash prize, and a nice bronze Lincoln bust, but subsequent printings of their books are imprinted with the Lincoln Prize medal, which can spur sales. And while James McPherson is a well-known historian (and Pulitzer Prize winner), Symonds, a well-respected military historian who taught at the US Naval Academy, is not nearly so well known, even within the Lincoln community despite being a finalist for the Lincoln Prize in 1993.

The 2009 Lincoln Prizes will be officially awarded on April 7.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Excellent USA Today Feature on Lincoln

Too often I am critical of USA Today -- or as Stephen Colbert slyly calls it, THE USA Today. Usually I refer to it as McNews because it seems to be a tabloid masquerading as a real newspaper, made up mostly of fast, short (and slight) stories.

But I was surprised to read a lengthy and detailed article about the complexities inherent within Abraham Lincoln. While not exhaustive, the article is an excellent overview of the changing attitudes toward Lincoln, which serve to both de-mythologize the man and yet also make him seem that much more extraordinary.

Click here to read the article, "200 Years Later, a More Complex View of Lincoln."

About half the article recites several of the "hot topic" Lincoln questions: Was he an atheist? Was he gay? Was he married to a shrew? The reporter, Rick Hampson, gives surprisingly meaningful and complete answers to these questions in just a few lines. This would be an achievement for even the foremost Lincoln scholars, and to do it on what I'd imagine was a short deadline is even more impressive.

So I strongly commend this article, though I wish the reporter had interviewed a couple of more people. (Then again, speaking of journalistic deadlines, the reporter might have that wish too.) My only quibble in on the section about "Was Lincoln gay?" Hampson rightly contextualizes the seemingly intimate relationship between Lincoln and his close friend Joshua Speed. However, Hampson does not mention some of the less easily evidence from later in Lincoln's life, in particular some of his relationships with soldiers at the Soldier's Home, Lincoln's "summer White House." These are less easily explained, and muddy the question significantly. (For myself, I don't think they show homosexuality on Lincoln's part; rather, I think they demonstrate a chafing at Victorian bedroom customs.)

Let the Bicentennial Dinners/Breakfasts/Deserts Begin

On Monday, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission co-sponsored a dinner in Washington, DC -- the first of many Lincoln-related meal events this week. The keynote address was offered by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who is both the Senate Asst. Majority Leader and one of the co-chairmen of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

In his remarks, Durbin offered some personal reflections on Lincoln's legacy, noting that he was not a Lincoln scholar. While Durbin's comments were thoughtful, if perhaps occasionally too kind toward Lincoln. Mentioning that he was the son of an immigrant, Durbin credited Lincoln with standing up against the nativist "Know Nothings" in the 1850s -- which is sort of true, though Lincoln was rather muted in his opposition, hoping to gain support from former "Know Nothings" in his 1858 and 1860 campaigns, as David Herbert Donald (among others) pointed out in his biography.

Still, I found two pieces intriguing. Near the end of his speech, Durbin pointed out some of Lincoln's non-Civil War related presidential achievements, such as the transcontinental railroad and the land grant college system, a less than subtle suggestion that the current federal government can establish long-lasting programs despite focusing on overseas military operations and the domestic economic crisis. Despite the political overtones, I'm happy to hear people point out that Lincoln never allowed the war to completely preempt the federal government -- something scholars too often overlook or minimize.

And twice, Durbin referred to Lincoln as "the one truly indispensable American." He was "the central figure in our history": "His leadership and unyielding commitment to the principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence not only preserved the Union, but created a new nation, as he said, 'worthy of the saving.'" One might initially believe that Durbin is overstating Lincoln's importance -- what about Washington? -- but his argument is more complex than that. Through his leadership, Lincoln, some have suggested, created a new United States in his attempt to simply preserve the union. If this argument is true, as Durbin evidently believes, then Durbin's claim about Lincoln might also be true. It is, at the very least, interesting.

Click here to read Durbin's full remarks, as released by his office.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

While most of the high-profile books hoping to cash in on the Lincoln bicentennial have been released steadily over the past few weeks, there are still two significant new offerings this week. Both published from university presses, one is yet another companion book to a Lincoln exhibit and the other is a new volume on Lincoln and slavery.

Releasing on February 10

The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln: Liberator and Emancipator edited by Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, paperback, 112 pages)

This book is a companion to a traveling exposition, "The Tsar and the President," which premiered last year at The Oshkosh Public Museum and currently is on display at the Kansas City Union Station Museum. The display attempts to compare the life of the two great liberators of the mid-19th Century, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who outlawed serfdom in 1861, and President Abraham Lincoln of the United States, who famously signed the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863 and worked to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The two men were very different. Alexander was well educated; Lincoln received little formal education. Alexander was raised in the elite, ruling class; Lincoln grew up poor and scraped his way into relative financial comfort. Both, interestingly, were assassinated: Lincoln in 1865 and Alexander in 1881. But they are both remembered most for their emancipation decisions.

This is an intriguing comparison, if only because it rightly suggests that the slavery issue was not unique to the United States. Indeed, in ways that have probably deserve more significant study, abolitionism was an international movement; it might be easy to exaggerate its influence, but it is important to understand that the conflict over slavery/serfdom was not only an internal issue in either the US or Russia.

Lincoln on Race and Slavery edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Donald Yacovone (Princeton University Press, 2009, hardcover, 408 pages)

This book presents Lincoln's own words on race and slavery, offered during his life in speeches and letters. Bringing together seventy pieces that Lincoln wrote during his lifetime -- from his protest as an Illinois legislator against slavery in 1837 to his final public address on three days before his assassination in 1865 -- the book offers an introduction for each selection in addition to a general introduction by Gates.

This collection seems to mostly repackage material available in many other Lincoln anthologies. However, for someone particularly interested in this subject, the editorial context offered by the noted African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates might make this book worth owning.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Lincoln on TV

In the coming week, a number of television programs will celebrate Abraham Lincoln, during this week of the bicentennial of his birth. Interestingly, several of these programs focus more on Lincoln's death than his life. Here's a list of the lineup by television network -- C-SPAN, PBS, The History Channel, and even the National Geographic Channel.


As part of their partnership with the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, C-SPAN is carrying "Bicentennial Celebration of Abraham Lincoln's Birthday: A Congressional Tribute" Live on Thursday, February 12. The program, scheduled to begin at 11:30 (EST), is a joint session of congress meeting in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol (which was the House chamber when Lincoln served his single term in the House of Representatives). Ray LaHood, now Secretary of Transportation and a co-chair of the Bicentennial Commission, will serve as Master of Ceremonies, and Doris Kearns Goodwin and Richard Norton Smith are scheduled to speak.

At the moment, C-SPAN is not scheduled to cover any other bicentennial events, but I expect that they will add a couple more on one of their networks. There are several events to choose from, but I think that the annual banquet of the Abraham Lincoln Association, which President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend, is most likely. The dinner begins on February 12 at 7:00 (local time). Updates on the C-SPAN schedule may be seen either on the specific C-SPAN Lincoln site or the C-SPAN schedule site.


"American Experience," the fine documentary series, offers a new 90-minute Lincoln program, "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln." I imagine that this program is inspired by the recent bestselling account of the aftermath of the assassination: Manhunt by James L. Swanson. Glancing at the transcript, already available online, it looks like several big-name Lincon historians are interviewed in addition to Swanson -- Harold Holzer, David Bright, Edward Steers, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joshua Wolf Shenk, James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, and others. The program is scheduled to premiere on many PBS stations on Monday, February 9. Here is a link to the program's website.

Some PBS stations nationally will carry a Lincoln program created by the PBS affiliate at the University of Illinois, WILL. "Lincoln: Prelude to the Presidency," a one-hour program, focuses on Lincoln's Springfield years, 1837-1860. It has reenactments and interviews with experts, including Doris Kearns Goodwin. The program premieres on WILL Monday, February 9 and may be on other PBS stations after that. Here is a link to the program's website.

Nationally, PBS will offer "Looking for Lincoln," a two-hour documentary, on Wednesday, February 11. This documentary, narrated by Henry Louis Gates, focuses on the legend and legacy of Lincoln, from the political ripples from Lincoln's presidential decisions to the growing trade of Lincoln collectors. The program features interviews with two of Lincoln's successors as president, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and numerous scholars, including Doris Kearns Goodwin (she's everywhere), Harold Holzer, Drew Gilpin Faust, David Herbert Donald, David Blight, Allen Guelzo, and Joshua Wolf Shenk. Here is the link to the program's website.

The History Channel

As part of THC Classroom, which allows teachers to record programs for use in their classroom, the History Channel is rebroadcasting "Lincoln: The Untold Stories," a two-part special on William Herndon's interviews after Lincoln's death with people who knew Lincoln, the biography Herndon wrote (with a co-writer) based on those interviews, and the recent scholarship on those interviews by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis. The program will air early on Wednesday, February 11 and Thursday, February 12.

On Lincoln's birthday itself, the History Channel will repeat several Lincoln programs, including the three-hour documentary "Lincoln," and two one-hour programs, "Investigating History: Lincoln, Man or Myth" and "Conspiracy: Lincoln's Assassination." The long program covers all of Lincoln's life, but focuses on trying to get inside Lincoln's head, perhaps heavily influenced by Joshua Wolf Shenk's then-recent book on Lincoln's Melancholy.

On Monday, February 16, the History Channel premieres a new two-hour documentary on the weird saga of Lincoln's body after his death. No doubt, the documentary is based on the recent book of the same title by Thomas J. Craughwell. The story, rooted in an 1876 attempt to steal Lincoln's body from his Springfield tomb, is unbelievably bizarre and true.

In addition to these programs, it should be noted that the History Channel is co-sponsoring with the Bicentennial Commission an online educational program about Lincoln on Lincoln's birthday. Featuring Harold Holzer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Matthew Pinsker, the "teach-in" is geared towards middle and high school students. It begins at 1:30 (EST) and will be available here.

The National Geographic Channel

On Thursday, February 12 National Geographic will replay its recent one-hour special "The Hunt for Lincoln's Assassin," which also chronicles the post-assassination saga.

On Saturday, February 14 National Geographic will premiere the two-hour version of "The Real Abraham Lincoln," a program which has already been shown in a one-hour format -- and which I previously reviewed on Lincolniana. I suppose that this is some sort of odd Valentine's Day counter-programming.

NY Times Book Review: 1864

This morning, The New York Times published a prominent review of Charles Bracelen Flood's new book on Lincoln, 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History. Written by one of the Times' best, Janet Maslin, the piece praises the book not only for its well-crafted, compelling narrative, but also, more interestingly, for Flood's instincts to focus on a single year of Lincoln's life.

Click here to read the review.

Comparing 1864 to other recent Lincoln books, Maslin suggests that life-long biographies allow too little depth, while books that focus on specific aspects of Lincoln's life -- his marriage, for example -- offer too little context. Flood's book, with its focus, is implicitly 'just right.' She writes:
But the survey books can be superficial. And the narrow-turf studies can suffer from tunnel vision. Mr. Flood's "1864" compresses the multiple demands upon Lincoln into a tight time frame and thus captures a dizzying, visceral sense of why this single year took such a heavy toll.
I have yet to read Flood's book, but I sense that Maslin is on the money. In some ways, this book on Lincoln may be like Jay Winik's book April 1865. That book served as a corrective on both Civil War studies and Reconstruction studies by focusing intensely on a specific compressed period of time to attempt to really show the pressures on those making key decisions at that time. Similarly, I think Flood's book may do the same thing for Lincoln, really contextualize the pressures -- Maslin suggests 'viscerally' -- within which he formed his decisions. If Flood's book succeeds, it will do so where other books trying to consider this question have been less successful -- like William Lee Miller's President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, which I previously have reviewed.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Book Reviews

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have weekend book sections with Abraham Lincoln features today. The Post's is more extensive, featuring two reviews and then an overview of recent Lincoln books, while the Times has a lengthy piece on recent books by longtime contributor William Safire.

The Post reviews are fairly straightforward, featuring yet another positive review of Ronald White's A. Lincoln. Although I was not a fan of White's book on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, I am quickly becoming convinced from the number of glowing reviews that this is likely a significant new biography. Also today there is a review of a new biography of Mrs. Lincoln, in which the reviewer is curiously ambivalent about whether Mary Lincoln merits an individual biography.

The overviews of recent biography in both papers are intriguing for their tones, including the fact that both writers feel compelled to regurgitate the long-time publishing joke about how a book on 'Lincoln's doctor's dog' would be an instant best-seller.

Setting this aside, both seem to take the opposite approach on the subject: in the Post, Fred Kaplan seem so repulsed by the number and length of Lincoln books that I half expect him to propose book-burning as a solution. This is odd given that Kaplan himself is the author of a recent book on Lincoln (Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer). Of course, he suggests that authors should limit themselves to one book only on Abraham Lincoln, which is a staggeringly short-sighted view. I gather that Kaplan will limit himself to only one book (which is his right), but I hesitate to think of others, like the prolific and enthusiastic Harold Holzer or the longtime student of Lincoln David Herbert Donald or the superstar of the next generation Douglas Wilson -- all of whom have published several significant books on Lincoln. And given his rather blase rebuttal of Michael Burlingame's recent multi-volume Lincoln biography (the first significant multi-volume work on Lincoln in decades, fitting into an older tradition of Lincoln biography) based on its length suggests that Kaplan does not really have the depth of reading in the Lincoln field to be writing generally about it. Of course, on that the editors of the Post clearly seem to disagree with me.

William Safire's lengthier piece in the Times is odd in that he seems rather eager to write his own Lincoln book to add to recent titles. Safire has a much longer introduction before he considers several important recent titles, including the aforementioned ones by White and Burlingame. He also gives attention to the new Library of America title, The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now which is certainly among the most intriguing of the bicentennial books; drawing from countless authors over almost 150 years, this volume allows one to glimpse the evolution of Lincoln's legacy. After this, though, Safire enters into an extended commentary where he suggests possible inquiries for future Lincoln books, including one that might be described as contrafactual history. As a whole, the column is interesting, but also a bit odd.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

February has arrived, so the publishers have pulled out all the stops with the Lincoln and Lincoln-related titles. Among the many new books this week, here are a few of the bigger titles.

Releasing in January

Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction by Allen C. Guelzo (Oxford University Press, US, 2009, paperback, 160 pages)

I found conflicting release dates for this book, so I've waited to write about it until this week. Among the recent spate of Lincoln biographies released have been three short biographies for adults by highly respected authors: this one by Guelzo and two released in December, one of comparable length by former senator George McGovern and an astounding one, if only for its length of only 96 pages, by James McPherson. For decades, it has been assumed that it was impossible to write a solid biography of Lincoln in around 250 pages or less. (In fact, for many years, it seemed that it was impossible to write a good biography in one volume, given prominent multi-volume biographies by writers like Carl Sandburg.) In 2002, Harvard professor William Gienapp released Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America, a concise 256 pages long, that was very well regarded by scholars and reviewers. (Personally, I was pretty underwhelmed by the effort, which seemed pretty thin to me.)

Now we have three prominent attempts to write a truly brief, but erudite, biography of Lincoln. Of these, this seems to me the most likely to be successful. McPherson and McGovern are first-time Lincoln authors, despite McPherson's career as a Civil War scholar. On the other hand, Guelzo has written an excellent full one-volume biography of Lincoln already -- Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President. Since that book, Guelzo has focused exclusively on Lincoln with an excellent book on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, another on the Lincoln-Douglas debates and a new book on Lincoln's philosophy. If a good short biography of Lincoln is possible, Guelzo seems up to the task.

On February 3

Lincoln's Men: The President and His Private Secretaries by Daniel Mark Epstein (Collins, 2009, hardcover, 272 pages)

Daniel Epstein now offers his third Lincoln book in the last four years -- a sign of the pace this popular author maintains. All of his Lincoln books consider specific relationships of Lincoln -- the first was a parallel biography of someone who Lincoln probably never met, Walt Whitman; the second was a biography of the marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. In this book (not to be confused with a previous Lincoln's Men by William C. Davis about Lincoln's relationship with the Union soldiers) Epstein traces the relationship Lincoln had with his personal secretaries in the White House.

It is difficult to overstate the depth of Lincoln's relationship with his secretaries, particularly John Nicolay and John Hay. They slept in the White House and were virtually always in the executive office; they acted as gatekeepers to Lincoln's office, they handled Lincoln's correspondence, and sometimes they even carried out missions to serve as Lincoln's eyes and ears outside the White House. They wrote on Lincoln's behalf, sometimes in his name, sometimes in anonymous articles for Union newspapers. Years after Lincoln's death, these two men would co-write a 10-volume biography of Lincoln that focused largely on his presidential years.

This book focuses on Nicolay and Hay, although it appears to also have significant material about William Stoddard, an assistant secretary who joined the team midway through the administration. Having glanced at Epstein's previous books, it will likely be a fluid narrative of these relationships. I can only hope that it does this too often overlooked topic justice.

1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelen Flood (Simon & Schuster, 2009, hardcover, 544 pages)

Flood, whose most recent book was on the relationship between Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, considers the tumultuous year of 1864 for Lincoln. At the beginning of the year, Lincoln was under tremendous pressure not to run for reelection; by the middle of the year, it seemed obvious that the Union effort was bogged down and casualty rates were growing at an alarming rate, leading even Lincoln himself to think that he would lose the fall election and the Union would perish. By year's end, or course, Lincoln has been overwhelmingly reelected and the Confederacy appears crippled.

In some ways, this seems like David McCullough's recent book 1776, which attempted to show the up-and-down fortunes of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. And, like McCullough, Flood is a strong writer who weaves his characters into a generally gripping tale. So this should be a best-selling history book. Unlike that tale, Lincoln's life is more tragic than the revolution, by the end of 1864, Lincoln's assassination is less than four months away, which I'm sure tempers Flood's retelling of the year's dramatic events.

I have mixed feelings about this book based on previous books by Flood that I've read. His Lee: The Last Years is a gripping account of Robert E. Lee's brief post-war career. But Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War was only okay -- solid narrative history, but I'm not sure Flood really adequately developed the promise of his subtitle; in fairness, it could have been titled "Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Saved Sherman's Postwar Reputation and Career," but I don't really buy that the friendship won the war from Flood's book.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Lawyers on Lincoln the Lawyer

The bicentennial publications about Abraham Lincoln continue. Here's one you may not come across, unless you happen to be a regular reading of the main publication of the American Bar Association. The February issue of the ABA Journal has a series of articles about Abraham Lincoln, Esq.

For a long time, Lincoln's legal practice was the gaping hole in the study of his life and legacy. Aside from anecdotal accounts, particularly about the case of Lincoln's that came to represent him as a lawyer, the Almanac murder trial of "Duff" Armstrong, very little hard evidence was dug up about Lincoln, Attorney at Law.

This changed about a quarter of a century ago. In 1985, the Abraham Lincoln Association began a project, soon joined by the Illinois Preservation Association, to unearth any documents related to Lincoln's legal casework in Illinois courthouse records. This project, first called the "Lincoln Legal Papers," produced print and CD-ROM records of the hundreds of documents they uncovered. Recently, the latest version of these records became available to researchers (or any other interested people) in a free, searchable on-line version called the Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln. (In fact, the overall project was so popular and successful that it has been expanded. It is now called The Papers of Abraham Lincoln as is collecting papers related to Lincoln's entire career, including his presidency, which may ultimately supplant the half-century old Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.)

The work of the last twenty years has excited scholars, who have used it to produce a number of recent books about Lincoln the Lawyer. Among the recent well regarded books are Lincoln the Lawyer by Brian Dirck (the Lincoln scholar who happens to be the creator of the great A. Lincoln Blog) and An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln by Mark Steiner.

If you don't have the time or energy to chase down and read those two books, the several short articles in the ABA Journal, all available online, give a good introduction to Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer. The pieces are written by several legal figures, including a piece by Steiner and another by Lincoln Forum president, and retired chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Frank Williams. Click here to go to the articles.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Official Beginning - The Launch of Lincolniana

It's difficult to suggest that there is a need for a Lincoln-specific blog. There are already at least a half-dozen others, and a couple of these are really strong. One is written by a real-life Lincoln author, who is currently working on (by my count) his fourth Lincoln book. On top of this, there are literally dozens of excellent Lincoln-specific websites (and uncounted more lousy ones), many developed and funded by well-respected organizations.

I can't sincerely argue that cyberspace needs my Lincoln blog, which has prevented me from starting this project for several years. Over that time, a few friends have suggested I should throw my hat in the ring and "start a Lincoln blog," but I've always been reluctant. I figured I'd do better to focus on the projects I'd already begun -- especially my Internet projects -- rather than adding something new.

But over the last year, the idea of starting a Lincoln blog has really been gnawing at me, and I've spent some time over the last six months preparing for the possibility. On a whim, one afternoon I searched to see if the address I would like to use was available; finding it available, I immediately reserved it. I started looking for ways to develop daily Internet searching habits to look for timely content, and I confronted the central question of what my blog might focus on. Then I considered how to design the site (having decided that traditional templates would not meet my desires).

You see the decisions that I've made over the past few months. I've designed a wide blog layout, with three columns instead of two, and put on it most of the site elements I wanted (there may still be another section of links added). I've started posting for about a month before really telling anyone, to get comfortable and decide that I really do want to do this right now.

And now I'm announcing the launch of my Lincoln blog, Lincolniana. The title is a throwback to a once-common, but now rarely used, term in the Lincoln field -- it refers to the artifacts that one can collect related to Lincoln. In the past, this had a wide meaning, from physical things that Lincoln touched or owned, especially actual copies of correspondence or other writing, to things produced about Lincoln -- copies of his writings, artwork, books, and eventually the trove of knick-knacks and usually kitschy products that featured Abraham Lincoln's likeness. And some of the early great collections of Lincoln artifacts outside of the Lincoln family, including some great collections of Lincoln-related books eventually donated to libraries, are known as Collections of Lincolniana (such as the Barton Collection of Lincolniana, which forms the basis of the University of Chicago's Lincoln collection, or more impressively, the Oldroyd Collection of Lincolniana, which forms the core of the Ford's Theatre Museum Collection). There are fewer such private Lincoln collections today, and they are rarely classified as collections of Lincolniana.

In some small ways, I hope that my blog will become a fine Internet collection of Lincoln materials befitting its name. Unlike some collectors, I will not post every Lincoln fact or article I can find; like the best collectors, I hope to discriminate wisely. In some ways, I will cast a wide net, and include discussions of Lincoln's legacy and influence today, especially in politics, but also in the arts -- including commercial arts, like advertising. In other ways, I will be more old-fashioned. I will focus much attention on Lincoln-specific books, documentaries, and other events, alerting people to upcoming things of interest and providing some (hopefully) timely reviews of this Lincoln material.

For the next few months, this will be more than enough, given the intensified interest in Lincoln during this, the bicentennial anniversary of his birth in 1809. Beyond that, I may add other elements, including some occasional essays on Lincoln that I write based more on my interests, rather than publishing cycles or news coverage.

So that is the stated scope of this blog. It is large enough to keep me busy for a long, long time, but not so helter-skelter as it might be. I think that many people will find it interesting (there is a significant audience for those Lincoln books, articles, programs, and exhibits that are appear in large numbers every year). The joke in publishing is that you can multiply your book sales by putting Lincoln's name in the title. If you are a Lincoln buff, or as I sometimes classify myself, A Lincoln Nut, welcome. Pass the blog address on to your friends -- they're welcome too.