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Book Reviews

Land of Lincoln

July 3, 2021

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.
by Andrew Ferguson (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. 279p.) $24.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. He has written for The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Fortune, Time and many other national publications. He is neither a collector nor an historian, but rather a self-described Lincoln buff. He looks a little like Mark Twain with whom he shares an outlook and style of writing.

The preface starts off: “More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American – nearly fourteen thousand in all – and at least half of those begin by saying that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. This book, you’ll notice, is one of them. Yet its subject matter is not Lincoln directly, or Lincoln exclusively. Its subject is really the country that Lincoln created and around which, I think I can show, he still putters, appearing here and there in likely and unlikely places, obtruding, stirring things up, offering consolation, dispensing bromides and bits of wisdom and otherwise making himself undeniable …. For a century or more, generations of Americans were taught to be like Lincoln – forbearing, kind, principled, resolute – but what we’ve really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, and this has never been truer than the present day. Lincoln hasn’t been forgotten, but he’s shrunk. From the enormous figure of the past he’s been reduced to a hobbyist’s eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self-selected subculture … That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln, seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.”

There is little historical narrative in this work. What little there is resides in the chapter on William Herndon and his effort to write the authoritative biography of his famous law partner. The balance of the work describes Ferguson’s travels to Lincoln related events and historical sites, done as part of his research or his effort to rediscover the Lincoln of his youth. In these travels, the author takes on the role of an observer of American SOCiety – sort of a modern-day de Tocqueville. He may be a traditionalist at heart, but he seems most interested in describing how people react to the Lincoln myth, attempt to use Lincoln to justify their particular lifestyle or career, call on Lincoln for inspiration, or blame Lincoln for perceived societal ills. Not being a Lincoln scholar, he doesn’t have an agenda or interpretation that he’s trying to advance. Accordingly, he provides a fresh look at Lincoln, from an entirely new perspective which, in many ways, is more perceptive and relevant than traditional works.

The chapters deal with a controversy over the installation of a Lincoln statue in Richmond, the transformation of the Chicago Historical Society (now known as the Chicago History Museum) with its new curatorial outlook, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, collecting Lincoln (yEAH!!!!), the association of Lincoln presenters, the appropriation of Lincoln by business motivational speakers, revisiting the sites of the Lincoln Heritage Trail and the pros and cons of the icon vs. the “real Lincoln” debate.

Since the book was written, Richard Norton Smith is no longer associated with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. We are given some background on the processes involved in its development, though, including the philosophy of the firm hired to set up the exhibits and overall layout (they are closely allied with Disney). A nine-year-old nephew of one of the people involved there apparently was impressed. “‘It’s great! So much fun! I didn’t need to read anything!’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, kid, you get it.’ But of course he gets it. He’s nine years old.” Along the same line, “They’re scared to death of making it seem like school. I think they think real information will scare people off. It’s all about feelings – how he felt, how people felt about him. Nothing concrete. Nothing that can make a kid think, ‘Oh, no! Is there going to be a test later?”’ The reader can obviously determine if this is appropriate or not and how it reflects on the current state of American education.

During his travels, the author visited Louise Taper, Dan Weinberg and Frank Williams (he also “broke bread” with our venerable publisher Jonathan Mann, but that mercifully gets but a token mention). Louise Taper comments how ” … Everybody’s very nice to me… because … I’ve got the stuff!” Now that she’s sold her collection,
we wonder if people are still nice to her. Hey, she can always buy more stuff!! This chapter titled “The Magic of Stuff” contains the only two statements that are not accurate. One: ” … most estimates put the number of active, relatively serious collectors of Lincolniana at fifteen thousand … ” (in your dreams!) and Two: “Bogus Lincoln letters can sell for thousands of dollars apiece … ” (try $200-300!)

We enjoyed the chapter on Lincoln presenters and have to relate an anecdote told by one of their fraternity, concerning a gig near Vidalia, IL in which he appeared with a Stephen Douglas impersonator on a float. ” … This Steve Douglas they had, well, he was a good man but he was a drunk… It got real hot and sure enough, before the parade even starts, he drank what must have been eight, ten beers. So we’re on the float and he’s trying to stay upright, just having a fine old time, waving at everybody, till we turn a corner and head into the very small African-American community they had in this small town. So Steve Douglas turns to me and shouts, ‘Hey, Abe, here’s a bunch you ain’t freed yet!'” The organizers kicked the two off the float and didn’t pay them their fees. Sometimes you can’t pass on the opportunity! You know you’re wrong, but you do it anyway!

Ferguson is not only a funny writer, but very perceptive. The vignettes of the “Land of Lincoln” he shares with us are very telling of human nature. Like Lincoln, he can criticize a state-of-affairs without being mean-spirited or personal. He compares his youthful fascination with Lincoln with the interest, or lack thereof, shown by the current generation. Museums and monuments of the past are compared to those of today. The small towns and cities of 40-50 years ago have undergone drastic changes, not all for the better, and the urban planners and government functionaries, though well-intentioned, have not always exerted a benign influence.

You certainly “can’t go back home”, as the author attempted to do during his road trip on the Lincoln Heritage Trail. The glowing past can sometimes become a little tawdry and youthful illusions don’t always survive to adulthood. In discovering that the Lincoln Birthplace Log Cabin in Hodgenville is not authentic, but of a later period, Ferguson reflects: ” … Put there from the best of motives, of course, but nevertheless a thing that wasn’t what it was supposed to be. If it’s a symbol, I thought, it’s a symbol of the fate of any search for Lincoln. Even when you thought you had him nailed, even when you’d chased the story back to its source, traced him from tomb to birthplace, he slipped away like quicksilver. Lincoln the man never seemed to be where, or what, you thought he was.” Fortunately, there are some die-hard Lincoln buffs like Ferguson who feel that Lincoln ” … means a lot to the country – or should if he no longer does. By the end of my travels I was more convinced of that truth than I’d been since I was a boy … ” And, despite the feeling that he may be out-of-step with the times, he still attempts to pass on this generational bit of wisdom.

Vol. 13, No. 1-2 (Fall/Winter 2007-8)