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A New Kind of History

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

Lincoln in American Memory. By Merrill D. Peterson. Oxford. $30.

In The Jefferson Image in the American Mind 36 years ago, Merrill Peterson patented what was, in effect, a new kind of history—the history of a great reputation. At least, he could claim the American patent; Pieter Geyl’s Napoleon: For or Against? was one European variant, and there are others.

The elusive quarry of Peterson’s longitudinal search was the third president, master of Monticello, and presiding spirit of the city in which this journal is published. Peterson established that Thomas Jefferson had served in the years since his death as a mirror in which each succeeding age could see itself reflected. Mr. Jefferson was the touchstone—a protean touchstone—of democratic legitimacy.

With Lincoln in American Memory, Peterson has added a distinguished and illuminating companion-piece to the Jefferson study. There is certainly no dearth of material. If there are hundreds of books about Jefferson, the Lincoln chronicles stretch into the thousands—16,000 books by one recent authoritative count. Lincoln may indeed be the most written-of historical figure since Jesus Christ; and from the outset the difficulty of distinguishing what is cultic from what is historical has been nearly as formidable as in that notable case. We might say, indeed, that Peterson has here played Albert Schweitzer to Lincoln, that this is his “search for the historical Lincoln,” and that the problem of the “memory” of Lincoln is strikingly different in many ways from that of the “image” of Jefferson. Both terms were carefully chosen. Lincoln was no sprig of the Virginia gentry with traceable bloodlines. His origins were obscure, or sufficiently obscure to feed as many genealogical speculations as there were speculators to make them—including the bizarre theory that he might have been the unacknowledged son, irony of ironies, of John C. Calhoun! Lincoln had once told his law partner “Billy” Herndon that a single line from Gray’s Elegy—”the short and simple annals of the poor”—was the measure of his own beginnings. Unlike Jefferson the contented Virginia stay-at-home, Lincoln had been a migrant, too, from his earliest years—born on the Kentucky frontier, spending his young manhood in Indiana, ripening as a political figure and Whig lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. There was also the shrouded swain of New Salem, where (like William Faulkner later) he served for a time as a postmaster and met Ann Rutledge. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was hardworking and respectable but unlettered. Little was known of his mother, who died when the future president was nine, although Josiah Holland, one of the earliest biographers, was sure that she had been an “angel.” (Some mythologers took the speculation regarding Lincoln’s mother all the way to the opposite extreme.) Unlike Jefferson, who descends to us as an almost translucent character of Enlightenment optimism and good cheer, Lincoln was notoriously melancholy and brooding. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Lincoln had not died in his bed of old age but had been grievously murdered and martyred in the hour of his great triumph and vindication.

Once Lincoln’s elaborate and protracted state funeral was over, and the mortal remains safely returned for burial in Illinois, the search for the “real” Lincoln began with a vengeance. Its first phase was reminiscence and the pursuit of the historical Lincoln quickly became, as it has remained, a free-for-all marked by bitter rivalries and enmities. The would-be chroniclers struggled to possess the memory of Lincoln, much as apostles might struggle over the mantle of a prophet or messiah. Rustic and railsplitter, saint and martyr, emblem of all that Americans aspire to be, the work of memorializing Lincoln makes an engrossing tale, and Peterson tells it superbly. And not mere words but statuary was at issue. If almost everyone agreed that Daniel Chester French’s great seated image in the Lincoln Memorial (1922) got Lincoln right, the iconographic wars were at times at least as ferocious as the verbal ones. Robert Todd Lincoln erupted with fury when it was proposed to erect a “clodhopper” Lincoln in Westminister’s Parliament Square, and something else was substituted.

Of the writers who were to write about Lincoln, the first and still in some ways the most influential was Lincoln’s 20-year law partner back in Springfield, “Billy” Herndon. Herndon probably saw more of the pre-war Lincoln than anyone other than Mary Todd Lincoln and exploited that intimacy throughout his remaining years. Herndon was a brilliant prose stylist of a (pre-Freudian) psychoanalytic bent. His own quirks and notions tend to explain as much about the Lincoln shaped by his pen and imagination as the elusive facts themselves. He sought truth, Peterson tells us, and he was at his best on the Lincoln he knew uniquely, the private man. But his greatest influence was perhaps a negative one. Herndon’s distaste for the early and persistent effort to transform the nonconformist Lincoln into what H. L. Mencken would later call “a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost” was so intense that he tended to overcompensate. “Now let it be written in history and on Mr. Lincoln’s tomb,” proclaimed Herndon in one of his early lectures, “He died an unbeliever.” From Herndon’s pen came the famous lecture, “Abraham Lincoln, Miss Ann Rutledge, New Salem. Pioneering and the poem called ‘Immortality.’ ” This utterance became the locus classicus of the legend of the Ann Rutledge of Edgar Lee Masters’ poem (“bloom forever, O Republic, from the dust of my bosom”). According to Herndon, Ann and the young Lincoln had been secretly engaged and her untimely death plunged Lincoln forever into melancholia and haunted his allegedly tortured marriage to the mercurial Mary Todd. That was the tale Herndon told, anyway, and with the equally dubious story that Lincoln spontaneously scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope in a matter of minutes, it has enjoyed a longer life than many a well-established fact. Naturally, Mary Todd Lincoln did not welcome this legend, and it permanently strained her once cordial relationship to Herndon.

In part to offset Herndon’s influence, Lincoln’s young secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, wrote their long, responsible and somewhat ponderous 10-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890). They drew on their first-hand recollections and diaries (eight of the ten volumes covered the Civil War years) and on the co-operation of Lincoln’s surviving son, Robert Todd, who vetted the work as it came from their pens. Hay had given Robert Lincoln the privilege of censoring the work, and he is known to have suggested at least one deletion, presumably on grounds of taste: “a story from [Ward] Lamon’s biography of Lincoln sewing up the eyes of hogs in order to drive them aboard a flatboat.” What Peterson calls “a spirit of filiopiety” pervades Nicolay and Hay, but it “enshrined the memory of the Civil War president and transmitted his legend to a new generation with the stamp of authority.” Alas, it did not sell, although Nicolay’s one-volume abridgement did at least five times better than the full set, which sold no more than 7,000. The first truly popular Lincoln biography—or at least the first such brief treatment of him to pierce the heavy veils of myth—awaited the arrival on the scene of none other than the hardworking Ida Tarbell, of “muckraker” fame. An assiduous researcher, she recruited assistant sleuths in all the scenes of the railsplitter’s early life and uncovered much new material. Her outlet was McClure’s, then (1893—94) just broaching the era of mass-circulation magazine journalism. Her Lincoln series quickly boosted McClure’s circulation to more than 300,000. Her two volume biography drawn from the same materials (1900) was a runaway best-seller. Albert Beveridge, fresh from his still admired biography of John Marshall, was next in line, along with Lord Charnwood’s one-volume life in the “Makers of the 19th Century” series, written during World War I. This noted overseas perspective—”informative, thoughtful and discerning,” Peterson calls it—was hailed by no less than the American Historical Review as an instant classic; and it has retained its charm.

Among the contenders in the middle years were William Barton, father of Bruce, the advertising mogul and pundit, who abandoned the Christian ministry to set himself up as an arbiter of Lincoln materials. Barton wrote much, but he lacked both Herndon’s nervous brilliance of style and Tarbell’s ingratiating humanity; and he quarreled frequently with rival sources. Finally, in what might be called the twilight of the pre-historical era, came Carl Sandburg’s mammoth Prairie Years, a catch-all of half-baked stories, myths, facts, quotations and nostalgic reminiscences, many of which had already been exploded by soberer investigators. It was said that Sandburg’s subject seemed to be himself, as much as Lincoln and that his gigantic biography was “more poetic than much of Sandburg’s poetry.” Battered and belabored, Sandburg ran a tighter, soberer ship while writing The War Years, consulting professional historians and scholars and attempting to curb the free-form impulses that later prompted Edmund Wilson to crack that Lincoln had not suffered so badly at anyone’s hands since John Wilkes Booth.

Sandburg’s volumes seem to have served as a sort of bridge to the period, commencing in the 1930s, when a new generation of brilliant scholars, applying the highest standards of the historian’s craft, dismantled the shrine and began to examine Lincoln critically and historically. Merrill Peterson dates this transition precisely—to J. G. Randall’s address to the American Historical Association in 1934 in which he challenged historians to free themselves “from party and sectional bias … [and] the heroic tradition.” All these men (and all were men)— Randall himself, whose four-volumes on the presidential Lincoln remain in many ways the best, Richard Current, David Donald, T. Harry Williams and, later Don Fehrenbacher—began winnowing cultic piety from fact. The effect, paradoxically, was to show that Lincoln was indeed a greater and deeper figure, certainly a more calculating and effective statesman, than the cult figure had been. Almost all the earlier reminiscences had undertones of condescension, as if character and genius of the Lincoln dimension could be measured on the petty scales of evangelical piety, and the “success” and log cabin myths. The newer generation of historians, though certainly interested in the rather shopworn topics of Lincoln’s spiritual life, his marriage, his relations with his children, and the various tall tales of the railsplitter and backwoods prodigy reading Bunyan by firelight, were at once less credulous and less patronizing. From their writings emerged a clearer picture of Lincoln’s genius, even his military aptitude. The underestimate of Lincoln that began in 1860 with William H. Seward, and perhaps crested in Charles Francis Adams’s condescending memorial address on Seward, at long last found decisive repudiation.

One can hardly read so fascinating a book as Lincoln in American Memory without fresh wonder at the bottomless American appetite for historical trash and our national genius for resisting good history. That appetite, so evident after Lincoln’s martyrdom, seems undiminished even today. I am thinking less of historical fiction (such as the recent novels by Gore Vidal and William Safire) than of the usual failure to grasp that history is itself an inquiry, necessarily changing and dynamic, in which the greater part of the fascination lies in the pursuit itself. As the historian John Lukacs has recently said, “history is revisionism … the frequent—nay, the ceaseless—reviewing and rewriting and rethinking of the past… . The historian deals in multiple jeopardy that the law eschews; the former is retrying and retrying again.”* In the light of Peterson’s brilliant study, there could be no better encapsulation of Lincoln’s lot in national memory. He has been retried and retried, under “multiple jeopardy.” Lincoln in American Memory is memorable historiography, a notable history of history, and it is richly instructive on the protean twists and turns of national memory and imagination. It tells us much of our own evolving dreams and fantasies.

Those who would grasp the “real” Abraham Lincoln can learn from Peterson, if they haven’t before, that, save perhaps in the eye of God, there can be no such figure. What we have is that ever-changing figure who seems to alter with the shifting lights we retrospectively play upon him. Like all great men, Lincoln seems always just beyond our grasp, receding from our extended touch even as we believe ourselves to be feeling a pulse and body heat. And if, as some say and others fear, post-modernist fashions have called into question not merely the tricks of memory and the fads of history but the very reality of what is remembered, Peterson’s is a text to be pondered. If all history is subjective, mythic or, to use a fashionable bit of deconstructionist jargon “parabolic,” are we not at liberty simply to make it up as we please to fit our personal tastes and prejudices? The figure of Lincoln, Peterson shows, has certainly suffered just that fate at times. He has been made up of whole cloth. But in the long perspective of time and national memory, it is not the made-up Lincoln, or the projection upon him of our prejudices, but the sober and responsible judgment of scholars and loving amateurs that lasts.

* “Reviving the Twentieth Century,” American Heritage, September 1994, p. 84.


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