Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America
by Andrew Ferguson
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), hardcover, 288 pages

Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, details the still visible and tangible legacy of Abraham Lincoln in this rousing book. Writing with humor and insight, Ferguson visits the museums and monuments, interviews several Lincoln students, and considers the shaping of Lincoln's meaning in American memory over the decades.

Land of Lincoln begins with the 2004 controversy over the installation of a statue of Lincoln in Richmond, Virginia, the former capitol of the Confederacy. The outrage clearly intrigued Ferguson, who wondered, as he writes, "Who could object to Lincoln?" (2) As Ferguson discovered, there's a strong contingent of people who dislike the sixteenth president. Attending a conference organized by opponents of the Richmond Lincoln statue, Ferguson was surprised to discover a room full of normal middle-class Americans, rather than rednecks or ignorant oafs, who seemed to know quite a bit about Lincoln. Listening to them, he was intrigued by a pattern that arose, exemplified by the writings of Thomas DiLorenzo, author of The Real Lincoln. He writes:
The pattern of DiLorenzo's awakening is common among the Lincoln haters. They all tell a similar story. Having inherited a vague but intensely admiring account of Lincoln in their youth, they were startled when they learned taht some of it -- at least -- wasn't entirely accurate, and before long the whole edifice came tumbling down. (23)
From this beginning, Ferguson sets out to trace the shape of Lincoln's legacy, learning more about the president than the 'vague but intensely admiring account' from his own youth. Ferguson himself is very much a central figure in this narrative -- for all of his solid objective comments -- and this story is in some ways a modern-day odyssey for the writer. Along the way, he frequently comments on the Lincoln he learned about as a child, visiting the Chicago Historical Society year ago or taking a family vacation along the Lincoln Heritage Trail.

Writing deftly with humor and care, Ferguson fleshes out his text, which at first seems to be just an entertaining travelogue: the author is always going somewhere to look for Lincoln, seeing the sights and talking to interesting people. Woven within this, though, is a wealth of historical facts about Lincoln and the development of his legacy, mixed with details about the changing contexts for Lincoln's legacy -- including the changing context of what is history -- and held together with Ferguson's own emotional response about what he's observing and learning.

The most entertaining chapter may be the brutal onslaught Ferguson launches at the Chicago Historical Society (now called the Chicago History Museum) in a chapter entitled "The Past Isn't What It Used to Be." Ferguson remembers visiting the museum as a child, especially the graphic representations of history, like a reconstructed fort and Indian village or twenty dioramas showing scenes from Lincoln's life. When he revisited the museum years later, all of these displays had been removed in favor of social history. Ferguson is clearly an ideological conservative, which gives his comments about museums an edge, but fundamentally he is almost certainly right: narrative history is more comprehensible for the general public -- with more interesting display pieces -- than social history.

This hugely entertaining diatribe aside, Ferguson is more amusedly balanced in the rest of his journey, whether considering the behemoth $145 million museum in Springfield, Illinois, talking to countless Lincoln impersonators at an annual Association of Lincoln Presenters conference, or dragging his own kids along a modified version of the Lincoln Heritage Trail (which turns out to have been a creation of the American Petroleum Institute to encourage lengthy automobile vacations). He considers the use of Lincoln over the last 80 years to teach leadership secrets to business people. He writes about the breathtaking and expansive industry of Lincolniana that has developed over the years, including a visit with collector de jour Louise Taper, irrepressible and enthusiastic as always.

It is difficult to describe the superb tightrope act Ferguson performs in Land of Lincoln. The text is unassuming, almost journalistic, yet brimming with intelligence. It is unfailingly enjoyable to read and consistently interesting. Moreover, it is often downright touching, never more so than the beautiful and ironic story about Ferguson's visit with his kids to Lincoln's birthplace cabin. It has insights and research for the Linocln buff, but will delight any reader.

This review is also available at LibraryThing.

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