Friday, October 2, 2009

Review - Land of Lincoln

Andrew Ferguson, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America;
Atlantic Monthly Press: NY, 2007; 279 pp.

Almost 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln continues to
dominate American history and popular culture. Yet who is Abraham
Lincoln today? Why does he have so many different faces? Why is he
claimed by different interest groups? And how should we separate
Lincoln the man from Lincoln the icon? In Land of Lincoln: Adventures
in Abe’s America, newspaper reporter Andrew Ferguson tries to
answer these questions while searching for the real identity of our
sixteenth President.

Born and raised in Illinois, Ferguson
was a full-fledged Lincoln fanatic as a
child, eagerly devouring all things
Lincoln: his writings, his statuary, his
place of birth, his tomb, and the
mountains of trinkets made in his
honor. Almost inevitably, Ferguson
wandered away from his passion as
a young adult, distracted by growing
pains and disillusioned by Lincoln
debunkers. But the controversial
dedication of a new Lincoln statue in
Richmond, Virginia, where Lincoln stayed a week before his death, forced Ferguson to re-examine America’s Lincoln ideology as well as
his own. Determined to understand the public’s view of Lincoln,
Ferguson traveled from Washington to California in search of
Abe’s America. From his travels Ferguson has culled a rich---
and hilarious---story that reflects our national quest: always
seeking, yet not quite finding, the elusive Father Abraham.

Ferguson finds Lincoln beset with lobbyists and special interest
groups, all trying to claim him as one of their own. Lincoln is asked
to be skeptical but pious, urbane but homespun, literate but
ignorant, peaceful but destructive. He has been dismissed as an
elitist, a bumpkin, or a shrewd manipulator. He has been made
a caricature of American imperialism. He has been asked to pull
the public’s heartstrings. Often, he has been forced to make
money for his modern-day disciples.

Ferguson decides that the last is the most ridiculous Lincoln of
all; as a failed businessman from the 19th Century frontier, how
could Lincoln possibly embody the spirit of 21st Century corporate
America? Nonetheless, Lincoln is co-opted by the Tigrett Corp of
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as a model of good business management
for executives and administrators. Ferguson’s survey of a typical
Tigrett Corp workshop illustrates more than the dangers of trying
to fashion Lincoln into our own image; it shows how an out-of-context history lesson, dressed up in entrepreneurship, can turn history into something almost unhistorical.

Thankfully, Ferguson does not spend much time with the business
executives, preferring to focus on three main Lincoln interest
groups: Lincoln collectors, Lincoln impersonators (though they
call prefer to call themselves “presenters”), and Lincoln historians.
Their widely divergent views seem to obscure the real Lincoln as
much as they reveal him.

In the Cult of Abe, Ferguson finds collectors and impersonators to
be the most accessible. Their passions for the man make them
ideal Lincoln proselytizers. As they see it, the key to understanding
Lincoln is through full immersion: either dressing up like him or
buying anything and everything connected to him. Their scholarship
might be patchy, but their hearts are in the right place.

By contrast, Lincoln historians earn most of Ferguson’s scorn. The
rangers and docents of the National Park Service and the curators
and administrators of the Lincoln Presidential Library, are the most
influential of the Lincoln interest groups. They provide the filter
through which the public sees Lincoln as he was. Thus they owe it to
themselves and to the public to get Lincoln “right”.

But if public history is collaboration between historians and the
public, then by Ferguson’s standards most public historians have
failed. They refuse to collaborate with the public. Instead, they
distill Lincoln into a series of Disney-esque vignettes, complete
with wax statues and pithy sound-bites, to make him more “fun”.
They sanitize his Illinois home with 21st Century efficiency,
exorcising the imperfections of the 19th Century in which he
grew up. They make him dull, weak, comical, biased,
ordinary---all in the name of protecting and educating the public.
In Ferguson’s eyes they have missed the point, and he is satisfied
when their grand efforts are rewarded with poor attendance
and low ticket sales. After all, they haven’t bothered to ask the
public what it thinks about Lincoln.

However, these public historians fare well compared to Lincoln’s
academic historians. When mentioned at all, they only serve to
illustrate the cluelessness of academia. A Richmond symposium
of academics formed to defend Abe’s honor is dismissed with a
brief paragraph; the best they can offer is the wan conclusion that
Lincoln “wasn’t so bad”. An academic social historian writes an
uncomplimentary study of of an exhibit at the Chicago Historical
Society, forcing the society to change its presentation of Lincoln
(one of Ferguson's favorite exhibits as a child). Other academics
find nothing to praise about the public interest in Lincoln. A
Altogether, academia wants to criticize and savage, rather than
to make any useful contributions.

By the last chapter, standing before the Lincoln Memorial in
Washington, D.C., Ferguson has found the real Lincoln: the icon.
Though debunkers try to knock him off his pedestal, though
academics belittle his greatness, though public historians try to
make him more “common”, most Americans prefer to see him
as extraordinary. Why else do they spend hours in his museums,
why else do they still visit his birthplace and tomb, why else do
they make his biographies bestsellers, if not because they
recognize his greatness? It is the old Lincoln, the Lincoln of folklore
and fable, the Lincoln of pomp and circumstance, the Lincoln of
the Lincoln Memorial---grand, oversized, unchallenged,
uncomplicated---that they long for.

In his particular criticism of the National Park Service and the various Lincoln museums, Ferguson offers a challenge to public historians. Rather than beginning with assumptions about the public, they should first seek to understand their viewpoints, not only about Lincoln but about all American history. They should carefully balance preservation, education and entertainment. And they should never forget that history, as the public sees it, is extraordinary. For those who would be public historians, Ferguson’s conclusion is a warning: don’t mess with Old Abe. The people still love him.

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