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Book Reviews

Lincoln and New York

July 3, 2021

Harold Holzer, ed. Lincoln and New York. NewYork Historical Society, NY and Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2009, 277p., $50.

This book is a companion guide to the exhibit, “Lincoln and New York” which just concluded a long run at the New-York Historical Society. The book consists of nine, profusely-illustrated essays by recognized scholars in their particular field of expertise. Mr. Holzer, who served as Guest Curator of the exhibit as well as Go-Chairman of the U. S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, wrote the introduction and one of the essays, “The Lincoln Image: Made in New York”, a topic previously covered by him in his book The Lincoln Image. Other essays deal with: New York Republicans, the culture of opposition, commerce & finance, the role of African-Americans and their interaction with white society, civil liberties in wartime New York, Mary Todd Lincoln and women’s contribution to the war effort, and how New York mourned the President. Many of the illustrations correspond to items in the exhibit, but there are items which do not appear in the exhibit. Likewise, not everything in the exhibit is pictured in the book.

Rather than focusing on the book which appears to contain uniformly well-written and researched essays, I will take this opportunity to relate my impressions of the exhibit itself which I viewed shortly after its opening. Parenthetically, it may be too early to evaluate the Lincoln Bicentennial as a “national event”, but it seems interest peaked in February, then abated to a great degree. I have a feeling that the timing of this exhibit, running from October 2009 to March 2010, may have failed to benefit from the media attention seen in February 2009. Still, any exhibit of this scope deserves praise for the organizational skills required as well as the sheer amount of work, determination and passion.

I had two impressions after leaving the show. First, I thought the paintings were magnificent. These included a mammoth “Departure of the Seventh Regiment” by Thomas Nast, a poignant genre scene by Edwin White titled “Thoughts of Liberia”, Edward Henry’s “Presentation of Colors to the First Colored Regiment of New-York” and several from-life portraits by Thomas Hicks, Francis Carpenter, William Edgar Marshall and Emmanuel Leutze (an astounding image of Lincoln at his Second Inauguration that was at least ten feet tall). There were also some interesting relics, such as Elmer Ellsworth’s coat with a hole in the chest and a wooden draft lottery barrel accompanied by the original paper slips inscribed with names of eligible draftees. There were some significant manuscripts, although many of them were facsimiles. There were a handful of blockbuster political items, almost exclusively from the holdings of New-York Historical, but this topic was generally underrepresented. One “campaign badge from 1864” was actually a 1909 centennial celluloid and one ferrotype badge was so small you could barely make it out, surrounded by a vast expanse of empty space (Iwould have been glad to loan some stuff, but nobody asked me!).

The second impression was the nagging thought “Wasn’t this show supposed to be about Lincoln?” Lincoln, as the central figure and raison d’etre of the Bicentennial Celebration, had somehow fallen between the cracks. The show focused on New York City from 1860 to 1865. Lincoln was an afterthought appearing, now and then, like Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern in “Hamlet”. If this hadn’t been the year of the Lincoln Bicentennial, an exhibit on the personalities and events associated with Civil War New York would have been most appropriate, especially at this venue. While the folks at New-York Historical may have been keen on this New York-centric point-of-view, the general public, the folks who pay the $12 admission fees and buy exhibit guides for $50, may have found the subject matter a little too esoteric. They don’t want to know from August Belmont, James Gordon Bennett, Henry Raymond, Samuel Tilden, Fernando Wood, Horatio Seymour, the Union League or the Great U. S. Metropolitan Sanitary Fair.

The visual aids were pretty awful. I did like the exhibit on newspaper editors, with facsimile copies of their publications arranged on wooden dowels and racks, like the reading room of a library or newspaper office. In the Cooper Union Speech exhibit, there was a TV running a continuous loop of Sam Waters ton screeching out the conclusion of the address … annoying as hell (sorry, Sam, stick to “Law & Order”!) In another room, two monitors were playing clips of hokey actors in costume spewing out homespun mottoes related to thrift and finance (what’s this got to do with anything?) There were also representations of political cartoons with wooden, jigsaw overlays which alternately covered or exposed the captions. What’s the point? Another room had items related to the race issue as it played out in the election of 1864. Someone had the clever idea of mounting political cartoons against the backdrop of a picket fence, simulating a street scene at election time. Unfortunately, the execution fell short-of-the-mark. The exhibit items were mounted in back of the fence and the viewer had to peer between the slats. Because of this, many of the items were obscured from view. One room had a barroom populated with life-size “cardboard” bartenders, based on a cartoon of prominent politicians, with the menus and bottles labeled with contentious issues or themes. Sort of creative, yes, but I suspect few, if any, of the attendees knew any of the characters depicted. The title of the exhibit, displayed overhead, seemed particularly cheesy, printed in a rather nondescript black font on a cutout “banner” made of sheet rock. Considering the money they spent on this exhibit, these accessories should have been a lot more graphically creative and well-made, more on-a-par with the banners and TV ads produced for the show. Near the gift shop was a booth where attendees could produce a video record of their impressions. I was tempted to avail myself of this “confessional”, but it had been a long day. These words will have to suffice.