Friday, October 30, 2009

Writing About Lincoln

How does one begin writing about Lincoln? Maybe a topic comes up involving Lincoln or a preconceived notion about him gets indulged through writing. Perhaps the author stumbles into the project by accident. Some people are asked specifically to write about Lincoln for some particular purpose. Ultimately all of these reasons and more could start one along in the process of writing about Lincoln. I started writing this blog due to a request, or rather a demand, from a friend. Since I was going to be expected to update the blog I decided I might as well try to further my dissertation research with topics for the blog on the general theme of my project: Lincoln and memory. It is with this sense of commemoration in mind that I am interested in what other people write about Lincoln.

Everyone who writes about Lincoln is engaging in a project of collective memory. Obviously no one is left alive now who knew Lincoln or knew somebody who knew Lincoln for that matter. Therefore, other memories have to be relied upon to say something about Lincoln today. Lincoln was a very personal man who did not keep a diary and gave us minimal insight into his life through his letters. In other words, relying solely on the Lincoln writings in the Collected Works and using no biographical works about Lincoln would make it extremely difficult to piece together the world in which Lincoln lived at any point in his life. Whenever we utilize these secondary sources the problem of unreliable information appears. There are a great many spurious Lincoln quotes floating around to say the least.

Even when dealing with reputable characters, there is the issue of only getting one side of the story or having words put into Lincoln’s mouth. For instance, in Frederick Douglass’ third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), he describes a meeting with Lincoln at the White House after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has been delivered. Douglass reports Lincoln as saying “Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” Douglass responded, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” A jovial Lincoln replies “I’m glad you liked it!” If one peruses the Lincoln Log entry for March 4, 1865, Douglass is not mentioned unless we consider him included in the number of the 6,000 persons Lincoln shook hands with. This particular encounter would not have been the first time these two men, these two friends, had met at the White House. We know how Lincoln felt about the speech. He wrote to Thurlow Weed on March 15, 1865 that he expected the speech “will wear as well as --- perhaps better than --- any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular.” There is no mention by Lincoln of Douglass’ “sacred effort” remark in gauging the perception of the speech. The context of the symbolic use of the Lincoln meeting in the East Room in Douglass’ autobiography (African Americans had previously not been allowed to view the Inaugural Address much less visit a President at the post-Inaugural ball and discuss the speech) is more important than Lincoln’s flippant reply, “I’m glad you liked it!”

Lincoln’s death was 144 years ago yet people still write about the “real” Lincoln—a Google search of “the real Lincoln” I did recently returned over 26 million results. If all of this time has passed and the genuine Lincoln has not been discovered, why should we believe that a new book or article will uncover the actual Lincoln which has been ostensibly out of our grasp? Putting the “real” or the “true” Lincoln in the title of one’s writing about Lincoln is audacious at best, foolhardy at worst. Authors making use of such titles are usually out to “set the facts straight” or separate “the myths from reality” or any number of other such stock phrases. Someone writing in this mood such as Thomas DiLorenzo typically has something out for Lincoln, those who write about Lincoln, or both. His second book about Lincoln, Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe, even begins with a section entitled “Challenging the Gatekeepers.” Such gatekeepers, DiLorenzo claims, are “the Lincoln cult” who, whether they are on the political left (a dubious idea in itself that the United States has one of these) or right, “use the Lincoln mythology to advocate a bigger, more centralized, and more interventionist central government for one reason or another.” Seeking a reevaluation of Lincoln’s legacy as DiLorenzo seems to want is fine in itself, but name calling is no way to begin an honest debate. We are also able to see that the “real” Lincoln to be discussed is only a Lincoln which fits in with the author’s predetermined standpoint—which is a terrible way to write no matter what one’s interests are. Any notions about discovering the “real” Lincoln at this stage of American history should be put to rest. If no one has done it by now, it’s not going to happen.

There is a Lincoln (or I should say Lincolns) that most people do not know, but this is not the “real” Lincoln either, but simply more of Lincoln than is typically written about. From what I can gather, Lincoln historians are well aware of how Lincoln handled the Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862—Lincoln signed the execution order of 38 Santee Sioux men (the largest mass execution by the US government in its history), pardoned 265 other Santee men, and allowed the removal of the Sioux and the Winnebago (the latter were not involved with the uprising) from Minnesota. Lincoln historians are reluctant to discuss this Lincoln in their writings. There remains only one book on Lincoln and his Indian policy, David A. Nichols’ Lincoln and the Indians. Lincoln’s service in the Black Hawk War (1832), which involved no actual fighting, or the fact that Lincoln’s grandfather was killed by Indians is hard to leave out of Lincoln biographies and is easy to track down. The Lincoln who advocated colonization for African Americans has been well documented by historians, along with the crucial fact that he changed his mind about this policy. Although Lincoln as a lawyer came down on the side of black freedom in a case of an attempt to sell a black woman in Bailey v. Cromwell, an unfamiliar Lincoln is the lawyer who six years later defended a slave owner in the Matson case. Nevertheless, this too is a Lincoln that the general public would struggle to reconcile with the popular image of “The Great Emancipator.” One of the difficulties of writing anything trying to approach a comprehensive Lincoln is that the Lincoln who emerges is a thoroughly complex man who is unable to be confined in the simplistic portrayals most people have been subjected to. Another hurdle to writing about Lincoln is a deadline. I’ll try hard not to come up against it next month.