Friday, January 29, 2010

Lincoln's Award-Winning Weekend

The year of Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial is at an end, but the former president's influence on popular culture remains. This weekend, as Mike over at The Abraham Lincoln Observer writes (I knew I should have burned the midnight oil to post this), a full CD recording of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Album category. The 14-CD set, released by BBC audio, features David Strathairn (Oscar-nominated actor for Good Night and Good Luck) as Abraham Lincoln and Richard Dreyfuss (Oscar-winning actor for The Goodbye Girl) as Stephen Douglas. The other nominees include another president -- Jimmy Carter reading his book We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land -- a reading of The Maltese Falcon, two autobiographies by famous people -- Michael J. Fox (the sentimental choice) and Carrie Fisher, and Jonathan Winters.

Even if Lincoln comes up short at the Grammys on Sunday, he's already won this weekend. At a 2010 Sundance Film Festival ceremony Saturday, "Drunk History: Douglass and Lincoln," a six-minute live-action short film directed by Jeremy Konner, will receive the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking. The movie, which follows the fractured narrative given by a drunk historian, features Will Ferrell as Abraham Lincoln and Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass. I have been unable to find the complete film online (there are others in the "Drunk History" series on YouTube), but there is a clip here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Lincoln and Depression

Over the weekend, Stanton Peele, whose blog is hosted on the Psychology Today website, posted an interesting essay on Abraham Lincoln and depression. In this, he considered the evidence of Lincoln's well-known bouts with melancholy/depression, coupled with the tragedies and stresses of his life. Given this, and Lincoln's supposed fatalistic religious outlook on life -- and his life in particular -- Peele is amazed at the strength Lincoln displayed in his life.

While I would quibble with a few details in the essay (I'm not entirely sure that Peele represents Lincoln's fatalism accurately, which went beyond simple issues of mortality), I think that Peele hits on a topic that accounts for part of the Lincoln mystique. It is difficult to imagine how Lincoln could endure all of the hard times in his life (his dissatisfied childhood, numerous career frustrations, difficulties with women, stresses of a wartime presidency) and keep going, making strong decisions (often with inspired words).

On the other hand, I wish Peele had gone further, particularly when he admits, "It is hard for modern psychology to fathom how a depressed person was confident and energized enough to guide the most powerful country in the world through the chasm of its self-destruction, while never losing his humanity." Personally, I have a long-held suspicion about modern psychology's understanding of depression, overstating the debilitating effects in many people. Lincoln's biography might be a good case study to push the understanding of depression.

One recent well-publicized book took on this topic: Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. As the subtitle suggests, Shenk tends toward the opposite pole from Peele. It is an interesting book, and one hesitates to challenge Shenk's slightly unusual approach given that he draws on his personal experiences with depression, but it is not a completely realized -- or completely balanced -- argument. But there is room for a more extensive study.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Year, New Lincoln Projects

As the new year begins, we bid an affectionate farewell to 2009 and the extended celebration of the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial. If the decrease in Lincoln-related activities depresses you, and if you are the sort of person who likes to start big projects with the start of the new year, the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, along with the Old State Capitol Foundation and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, has the perfect activity for you.

For those --like myself -- who live outside of central Illinois, it can be difficult to visit the Lincoln related sites. Now you can bring some Lincoln-related sites into your home. The IHPA website included instructions for making scale models of several Lincoln sites, including the Lincoln home, the Lincoln gravesite, two of the three state capitol buildings Lincoln knew (the second Vandalia capitol and the Old State Capitol in Springfield), and the Western Depot.

Evidently, you simply print out the color patterns on cardstock, and carefully cut and glue as directed. The log cabins look small, but fairly easy. The impressive Old State Capitol requires 41 pages of cardstock (.pdf takes a bit to download) and is, even according to the IHPA, "not for the faint-hearted."

I suppose that few people would display all of these buildings (though they would be fun to make with kids of the right age). But if you wanted to surprise your friends, you could make the models, adorn them model wreaths and greenery, and display them next Christmas instead of the more expensive New England villages that so many people now have. It could be the next part of a themed Lincoln Christmas display, with a tree featuring Lincoln ornaments (such as these recent ones: here, here, here, and here), a Lincoln nutcracker (mine looks similar to this one), and a Lincoln village. I suppose it's only a matter of time before someone creates a kitschy Lincoln nativity set to complete the ensemble. (Having imagined that, I know envision a gangly teenage Dennis Hanks in place of the wise men, though I imagine he didn't bring gold, frankincense, or myrrh. If he did, I'm sure he would have told people about it later in life. But I digress into heretical flights of fancy.)

Because now, having finished putting the decorations back in storage, is the perfect time to prepare for Christmas 2010: A Very Lincoln Christmas. On a more serious note, the models are a good idea. Happy New Year!