Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory

Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory by Barry Schwartz (University of Chicago Press, 2000), hardcover, 382 pages

Over ten years ago, while visiting Washington DC, several people and I decided to walk down to the National Mall late at night.   Mostly, the streets were empty, until we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial after 11 pm.  More surprising than the number of people that early March night were the fact that there were two tour buses full of tourists visiting at that late hour.  Even then, I wondered what attracted so many people, at all hours, to climb the marble steps to stand at the foot of the seated, yet imposing, Lincoln.

In the vast amount of Lincoln-related literature, few people have attempted to answer the question of Lincoln's prominence in the almost 150 years after his death.  The most comprehensive attempt, as yet, is a two-volume work mapping Lincoln's legacy from his assassination to the present.  Written by sociologist Barry Schwartz, who previously researched George Washington's legacy, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory is the first volume.

Focusing on the period between Lincoln's assassination in 1865 and the 1924 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Schwartz details the increasing influence and prominence of Lincoln's legacy, particularly during the Progressive Era.  Unlike other assessments, including Merrill Peterson's argument in his 1994 book Lincoln in American Memory that Lincoln's prestige rose sharply in the wake of his assassination and continued upward, Schwartz has a more sophisticated argument.  While there was an initial surge of Lincoln-related material in the months following his assassination, Schwartz argues that Lincoln's legacy didn't really begin to rise until the 20th Century, about two generations after his death.

Schwartz's overall view of the rise, plateau, and the dramatic rise of Lincoln in national memory is persuasive, particularly in the final chapters of his book.  Unfortunately, the narrative is almost crippled by the insistence that Lincoln's prestige was virtually nil until the moment he was cut down by an assassin's bullet.  While it is true that Lincoln was a divisive figure during an highly divisive era, and as such rabidly opposed by legions of people, including many in the North, and only tolerated by others, including many leading Republicans, there were people who admired his leadership and recognized his influence.

Part of this analysis seems to be due to Schwartz working back from the 1920s to 1865 and struggling to comprehend the period from 1870 to 1900.  Citing the work of others, especially Michael Kammon, he argues that the late 19th Century seems an ideal time for Lincoln's prestige to rise dramatically.  Since it does not, he struggles to explain the delay, and implicitly suggests that it stems from greater antipathy toward Lincoln by those of his generation than usually recognized.

One of the prime pieces of evidence Schwartz cites to develop this argument is a comparison between Lincoln's legacy and that of George Washington during the late 1800s.  By most measures, including many quantitative ones like number of articles in newspapers and magazines, Washington is more influential than Lincoln during the last decades of the 19th century.  However, the amazing thing is the frequency with which Lincoln is mentioned compared to Washington.  Even before the Progressive Era, Lincoln's reputation is clearly on the rise in national memory because he stands outside of Washington's shadow in ways that other influential Americans of the period, even Andrew Jackson, do not.   (This is apparent even in 1865, if one compares the image of Washington in eulogies of Lincoln to that in eulogies preached following the deaths in office of William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.)

Entering the 20th century, though, Schwartz's work is almost breath-taking.  After detailing how different parties and social movements tried to appropriate parts of Lincoln's biography to support their cause -- even the socialists -- Schwartz details how the prestige of Lincoln surpassed even Washington's reputation as a model for national unity, especially in the years of World War I and the years thereafter.   In particular, Schwartz takes great care to describe how Lincoln's unifying image was a composite of parts that were not entirely reconcilable, a point vividly displayed in the contrasting memorials to Lincoln in Washington DC and at the site of his Kentucky birthplace.

There is much to admire in this well-researched and well-written book, particularly in the final third of the text.   Using collective memory, a sociological concept that only occasionally appears in books outside that field, Schwartz gamely attempts to see the legacy of Lincoln both from the perspective of the use of the Lincoln image and reputation and from the evident reception of such usage -- the latter being much more challenging.  That he mostly succeeds is a testament to his precision of thought and scholarly craft that he brings to the project.

Many with long-standing assumptions about the rise of Lincoln's reputation in national memory will find their theories significantly challenged, if not contradicted.  And while there are some limitations, overall the book is an important account of the transformation of Lincoln from divisive wartime president to unifying icon.