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Seeking Truth From Lincoln Myths : LINCOLN IN AMERICAN MEMORY by Merrill D. Peterson ; Oxford University Press $30, 482 pages

July 22, 1994|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a remarkable list, and for the most part blue-chip: William Dean Howells, Edgar Lee Masters, Ida Tarbell, Carl Sandburg, Dale Carnegie, Horatio Alger and politician Paul Simon.

Only one figure in U.S. history--with the possible exception of John F. Kennedy--could move such a varied group of writers to publish books about him, but of course Abraham Lincoln has been in a class by himself since April 15, 1865, when he died of a bullet wound to the head.

On that day, Good Friday, he became the Martyred President, and subject to more commentary than any other historical figure besides Jesus Christ--to whom, naturally, he has on occasion been compared.

Merrill D. Peterson, emeritus professor of history at the University of Virginia, undertook a daunting task with "Lincoln in American Memory"--poring through, and making sense of, the enormous amount of material written about the 16th President. Peterson, fortunately, was well prepared for the job, having published more than 30 years ago "The Jefferson Image in the American Mind," a Bancroft prize-winning book with a similar theme.

And once again he has triumphed, for the Lincoln book is a fascinating exploration of the evolution of legend, the ways in which mortal men--for good and ill, and regardless of historical fact--become mythical.

Peterson doesn't set the record straight here but traces others' attempts to do so . . . or more often their attempts not to do so, for the major lesson of "Lincoln in American Memory" is that although history may be written by the victors, it's glossed by everyone else.

The principal battle waged in this book--the Civil War aside--is the three-way conflict among those who promoted, respectively, the "folklore," "dunghill," and "historical" Lincolns.

Modern scholarship (though not post-modern) favors the historical category, but for many decades virtual hagiographies--exemplified by Sandburg's massive, six-volume biography--duked it out with hatchet jobs (such as Masters' screed, "Lincoln the Man"), frequently of Southern parentage.

The myth-makers like Sandburg, Carnegie and Alger won, of course, portraying Lincoln as a model for future generations (Alger's biography was in fact a children's book, and Sandburg's was commissioned as one).

Masters, the author of "Spoon River Anthology," believed that such myth-making was damaging to the nation, but the invective he used--describing Lincoln as selfish, ignorant and having "a lazy mind"--hardly helped his cause.

Many people were upset by the books that claimed Lincoln had deliberately instigated the War Between the States, but Masters' volume was universally reviled, to the point that a bill was introduced before Congress attempting to ban its delivery through the U.S. mail.

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Lincoln associates, diligent amateur scholars and professional historians also produced biographies, and they were often more accurate, if also more plodding, than the better-known works. They inevitably carried their own agendas, however, as Peterson makes clear, which brings us to the much more ephemeral Lincoln interpretations that used the President, sometimes naively but more often cynically, for the authors' particular ends.

Lincoln, it was maintained at one time or another, wanted to deport blacks; contracted syphilis; was driven mad for the lost love of Ann Rutledge; intended to follow the abolition of slavery with the abolition of alcohol; was killed by papists; was killed by Jews; was in fact a Jew; was really a Christian, despite never going to church. Lincoln, in short, has been invoked by just about every cause imaginable--even by communism, the U.S. party producing a document in 1936 arguing that "Today it is left to the Communist Party to revive the words of Lincoln."

Lincoln has lent himself to such usage because his myth, so quick to appear and so massive in reach, has constantly exerted a gravitational pull over the facts. Many of those facts are now beyond dispute, and perhaps the biggest is the one illustrated so well by Merrill Peterson--that Lincoln is "an inexhaustible subject."

(Peterson quotes the old publishing joke--that a book entitled "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog" would be a can't-miss best-seller because those topics were, at one time, dependable reader favorites.)

"Lincoln in American Memory" won't fix Lincoln in American memory, and of course isn't intended to, but if there's anything approaching a balanced description of the Great Emancipator to be found in this volume, it's the one provided by W.E.B. DuBois:

"I love him," DuBois declared, "not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. . . . at the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent--cruel, merciful, peace-loving, a fighter, despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote, protecting slavery, and freeing slaves. He was a man--a big, inconsistent brave man."

It's a mixed epitaph, to be sure, but one to be proud of nonetheless.

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