Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era

Abraham Lincoln in the Post Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America by Barry Schwartz (University of Chicago Press, 2009), hardcover, 410 pages

More than 140 years since his death, Abraham Lincoln is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Not only is the publishing industry producing several Lincoln-related titles each year, but recent ad campaigns have portrayed the 16th president in a completely new role: television salesman. This recent exposure, however, does not necessarily correspond to a heightened recognition or appreciation of Lincoln, as Barry Schwartz makes clear in "Abraham Lincoln In the Post-Heroic Era." This is the second volume examining the history of Lincoln's legacy, covering the period from the Great Depression to the present. (The previous volume, "Abraham Lincoln and the Forge Of National Memory," surveyed the years from Lincoln's death in 1865 until the 1920s.)

As might be expected, Schwartz studies the portrayal of Lincoln in artwork, editorial cartoons, statuary, and popular written materials, particularly newspaper and magazine articles. More than this, though, Schwartz uses the results of several surveys conducted over more than a half-century and consults dozens of school textbooks in an attempt to determine and trace Lincoln's prestige through this period. By several measures, Lincoln's reputation peaks during the World War II-era and declines thereafter, with a particularly steep drop during the 1960s and 1970s.

Schwartz's argument is compelling, if complex and sophisticated. Partially, he believes there is less need for Lincoln's unifying reputation in this post-modern age as compared with the World War II-era. Beyond that, he agrees with other scholars who see a post-heroic age which began some time between Kennedy's assassination and the Watergate break-in. Schwartz notes that this decline is not only in Lincoln's reputation, but in the reputations of other key historical figures as well. Whether due to postmodern ideas about equality, the probing for and uncovering of gritty details in the lives of historical figures, or a change in focus in the national narrative, the differences between the 1940s Lincoln in the 1980s Lincoln are radically different.

During this period, one particular aspect of Lincoln's legacy has come to the forefront, overshadowing many of the traits that previous generations had celebrated: Lincoln as precursor to racial equality. While this might be expected during the Civil Rights Era, it has developed in the decades since to the point where most of Lincoln's actions are seen through the lens of the Emancipation Proclamation and minority rights – even the Gettysburg Address, which Schwartz promises to discuss at length in a future volume.

In light of an overarching narrative that traces the rise and fall of Lincoln's prestige, the concluding chapter is unexpected and surprising. Having explored Lincoln within the sociological theory of collective memory, which suggests that each generation adapts beliefs and memories of previous generations to its own needs, Schwartz suggests that the person of Abraham Lincoln has developed its own inertia and stands outside of this adaptation process, at least in part. Perhaps only a self-perpetuating memory of Lincoln can withstand the winds that cut heroes down to size in the post-heroic era.

For the most devoted students of Lincoln, though, this may be more disheartening than hopeful. As Schwartz writes about Lincoln's present legacy in American cultural memory:

"As each generation modifies beliefs held by its forebears, an assemblage of old beliefs remains and coexists with the new, including old beliefs about the past itself. Lincoln therefore remains the man of the people and the man above the people, The Savior of the Union and emancipator of its slaves, the embodiment of rugged individualism and the welfare state, the personification of humor and sorrow, iron will and compassion. That is the man we knew yesterday; that is the man we know today.

"However, these continuities do not restore the Lincoln of the 1930s and 1940s, the man Americans looked up to and emulated. He is now less the Savior of the Union, less the rugged individualist, less the man of sorrow and humor, less the man of steel and velvet. He is now a smaller man, known by more, adored by fewer, emulated by fewer still." (263)

Such devoted students of Lincoln, however, will need to read Schwartz's book, a towering contribution to the nascent study of Lincoln's legacy. Mixing strong research, well-crafted prose, and a great amount of nuance, this volume describes the complex evolution of the memory of Abraham Lincoln, evident in popular culture and scholarship alike.