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Illinois Issues Summer Book Section

Lingering fascination with Lincoln


Gabor S. Boritt, editor, and Norman O. Forness, associate editor. The Historian's Lincoln:
Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History.
Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Pp. 423 with index. $24.95 (cloth).

Journalist A.J. Liebling wrote in 1950 that people in Springfield, Ill., still gossiped about Abraham Lincoln.

"One section of local thought agreed with Herndon that Lincoln was a great, sad, essentially rustic man, driven into public life because his home was intolerable and breaking his chronic spells of depression with splurges of manic storytelling. This group accepted without reservation the Herndon view that Ann Rutledge was the true love of Lincoln's and Mary Todd Lincoln a disaster."

'. . . Mrs. Lincoln had,
in fact, made something
out of a man who
without her would have
remained a clodhopper'

The other side, Liebling continued, included most church people and married women in town and held that: "Lincoln was a fair representative of the cultured upper class of Springfield by the time he ran for President. They believed that if Lincoln ever liked Ann Rutledge, the girl was at most a transient sorrow, and that Mrs. Lincoln had, in fact, made something out of a man who without her would have remained a clodhopper." Liebling's delight in local preoccupation with Lincoln matched that of his host, Gov. Adlai Stevenson.

Lincoln continues to dominate Springfield. His home, whose floors were recently reinforced with steel beams to accommodate crowds of visitors, still cannot hold all who come to tour it. An annual Lincoln Symposium in the Old State Capitol draws hundreds, and the ceremonial yearly banquet of the Abraham Lincoln Association even more.

Springfield is not the only center of the Lincoln industry, however. The Lincoln Herald, published quarterly at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, contains a column of Lincoln news from around the country, as does the annual Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

Although the reality of Lincoln's life and career has not changed since his death, each generation discovers it anew and always with changing perceptions. In the 1920s, former Sen. Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana, author of a massive biography of Chief Justice John Marshall, turned to Lincoln. Undaunted by shelves already crammed with Lincoln books, he denied that the last word on Lincoln had already

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 28

been written, insisting instead that "the first word has not been penned." Prudery, partisanship and legend, he argued, had created a Lincoln bearing little resemblance to the real man.

Beveridge's Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, cut short by the author's death, won praise but no general acceptance as the last word either. Instead, the public preferred Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. Beveridge intended to strip away legends, but Sandburg, valuing empathy with his subject above accuracy, polished them to poetic sheen. Critic Edmund Wilson labeled Sandburg's folksy Lincoln "insufferable."

When Beveridge and Sandburg tackled Lincoln, professional historians stood aside. During the past half century, however, Lincoln has moved into the academy, where judgments always differ. In 1984, Gabor Boritt, professor at Gettysburg College, assembled authors and critics to discuss the 15 most influential Lincoln books written in the past decade, in most cases asking authors for a brief statement of their central themes, then assigning critics to comment.

Readers of the published presentations will find both a synopsis of current scholarly opinion and insight into the continuing fascination of Lincoln himself. Savage warfare rages on interpretive frontiers such as explanations for the Civil War. One psychohistorian argues that Lincoln launched a patricidal assault on George

So this symposium
concludes with highly
respected Lincoln scholars
grumbling about the
latest Lincoln books

Washington, another that Lincoln committed fratricide on Stephen A. Douglas, then both ignore Jefferson Davis's decision to fire on Fort Sumter. Commentators rush to set them straight. Two books on Lincoln's assassination, both intended to rescue the event from modern loonies awash in conspiratorial fantasies, receive more respectful consideration.

As for biographies, Richard N. Current contemptuously dismisses a brief life by Oscar and Lilian Handlin, then, after conceding that the biography of Stephen Oates is the best available, questions both its style and substance. Confronting Gore Vidal's Lincoln: A Novel, Don Fehrenbacher asks plaintively "What have we here?" Praised by literary reviewers as good history and by historians as good fiction, the novel contains a mixture of "fact, fiction, and error . . . seductively unreliable as biography."

So this symposium concludes with highly respected Lincoln scholars grumbling about the latest Lincoln books. The audience can confidently anticipate that more books and arguments are coming. □

John Y. Simon is executive director and managing editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and professor of history, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Editor of 16 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, he frequently writes about Lincoln and the Civil War.

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 29

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