CULTURAL AFFAIRS: LINCOLNIANA

What Would Abe Do?

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Reviewed by Harold Holzer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

LAND OF LINCOLN

Adventures in Abe's America

By Andrew Ferguson

Atlantic Monthly. 279 pp. $24

To anyone who watched the 2005 Discovery Channel mini-series "Greatest American" -- and millions did -- it is clear that Abraham Lincoln has morphed from controversial paradox to national icon back to controversial paradox. Condemned by 19th-century critics for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation too quickly (voters eviscerated his party in the next congressional elections), Lincoln has been damned by 21st-century critics for doing so too slowly. Historians are well aware of this revisionist phenomenon; many have contributed to it.

Now magazine writer Andrew Ferguson, a passionate Lincoln buff in his youth, has reawakened his long-dormant interest to discover the complex status of Lincoln's reputation. His new book is part historiography, part travelogue, part memoir and part indictment -- if not of Lincoln, then of some of the modern Americans who devote themselves to preserving his reputation and memory.

The book has been cleverly issued for Father's Day, because much of it is devoted to Ferguson's hilarious efforts to force-feed Lincoln to his cyberspace-conditioned children. Hoping to vacation in the mountains or by the shore, the youngsters are instead dragged to the Lincoln sites Ferguson treasured in his own childhood. No parent who ever packed a family into a station wagon will fail to identify with, and roar at, the adventures of the Ferguson clan on the Lincoln Heritage Trail -- Ferguson's son winces "against the torrent of information" in Springfield while his daughter mimics Dad's tour-guide enthusiasm. And no father will be disappointed by their inevitable epiphany. The old sites may have been reinterpreted into politically correct pabulum, the new ones blaringly Disneyfied, but somehow the impregnable Lincoln story -- that of the poor child who lived the American dream -- still resonates.

Ferguson's cultural insights are vivid and penetrating. He is a gifted observer and terrific writer, at his best with his family in tow. Unfortunately, he traveled on his own, too, and at private homes, museums, hotels, restaurants, conventions and retreats, his less charitable side occasionally took over. Maybe he missed his wife and kids.

By way of disclosure, my name appears in this book. Ferguson mentions me in passing (as "a specialist in Lincolniana" who "used to write speeches for Mario Cuomo," an identification that will undoubtedly surprise Cuomo, who wrote his own). Ferguson also manages to mischaracterize -- character assassinate might be a better term -- a number of Lincoln enthusiasts whom I have known for years, while puffing up some I wish I hadn't. Such is his prerogative, but sometimes the vitriol boils over. Frank Williams, who founded and still chairs the Lincoln Forum, is undeservedly caricatured as a self-aggrandizing don. California mega-collector Louise Taper, a generous lender to public exhibitions, is observed in her vault fondling her treasures like a latter-day Midas.

Lincoln impersonators, who sport stovetop hats and frock coats at their annual conventions, are easy targets. Left unsaid is the fact that in today's comparatively history-free schools, these earnest pros sometimes constitute our last, best hope of teaching Lincoln to children who lack fathers like Andrew Ferguson. Lincoln haters such as the born-again Confederates who viciously disrupted the unveiling of a Lincoln statue in Richmond get more sympathetic treatment than the folks who commissioned the sculpture.

Oddly enough, Ferguson recently appeared with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN's book show "Q & A" to extol some of the people he savages in print. Those who saw the Dr. Jekyll on the tube might be astonished by the Mr. Hyde who occasionally comes through in these pages.

Conceding he has read much of the Lincoln literature for the first time, Ferguson can be forgiven a few errors. It is not true that Lincoln "declined" to run for re-election to Congress "when it became clear he would lose." He had agreed to serve only one term in order to rotate the safe seat among other rising Whigs, but, given the chance, would have gladly stood for a second term. And Lincoln did not donate his handwritten Emancipation Proclamation to the Chicago Historical Society. Rather, he gave it to a Chicago charity sale, winning a gold watch in the bargain for making the most valuable donation. That said, Ferguson demonstrates a shrewd skepticism for William H. Herndon's 19th-century Lincoln research, which too many modern biographers digest without the requisite grains of salt.

But these are minor issues. The major one is the cynicism that pervades so much of Ferguson's otherwise trenchant, sometimes laugh-out-loud narrative. Readers won't soon forget his hilarious re-telling of the final performance of one Billy Edd Wheeler's musical "Young Abe Lincoln," featuring pioneers a'dancin' "when someone got married or died, went a-huntin' or a-courtin', and even, in a particularly confusing dream sequence, when someone fell asleep." His saga of rediscovery manages to be both funny and depressing, a rare accomplishment. But is it fair? One cannot help wishing that what Ferguson has captured is not really Lincoln's America. Hopefully it is not America's Lincoln, either. ยท

Harold Holzer is the author, co-author or editor of 28 books on Lincoln and the Civil War.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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