Thursday, October 1, 2009

Scholar Merrill Peterson passes away

University of Virginia historian Merrill D. Peterson, famous for his many books on Thomas Jefferson, passed away last week. The Washington Post ran the obituary today.

Over his career, Peterson wrote on many other subjects, including his 1994 book Lincoln in American Memory. This book, a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, echoed Peterson's first book, the Bancroft Prize-winning The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. In that book, Peterson chronicled the evolution of Jefferson's reputation and stature in American history. In Lincoln in American Memory, Peterson carefully chronicled Lincoln's image, and its evolution, in the years since his assassination.

While others have written on the topic, such as Lincoln-historian Benjamin Thomas a couple of generations ago. But no recent study had taken on the daunting task of tracking Lincoln's reputation -- in books, in memorials, in advertising, etc. -- for the (then-) past 130 years.

Since Peterson's book, sociologist Barry Schwartz has written a two-volume history on Abraham Lincoln in cultural memory. Even so, Peterson's book is an invaluable addition to the Lincoln bookshelf. Personally, I would place it on any list of "essential" Lincoln books, as does The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, which I notice has been updated to include Harold Holzer's Lincoln President-Elect (which I'm currently reading and enjoying).

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