Remembering Honest Abe

LINCOLN IN AMERICAN MEMORY By Merrill D. Peterson Oxford University Press 482 pp., $30.

HAVING been taught by the history of the 20th-century world to fear ``great men,'' we yet long for people to look up to, even to idealize. But great leaders prowl in the American memory indelibly - and no one more than Abraham Lincoln. The poet laureate Stanley Kunitz wrote not so long ago both of the nature of memory and of Lincoln: ``He is slipping away from us/into his legend and fame.''

This sad tall man, Merrill D. Peterson writes in his fine scholarly study ``Lincoln in American Memory,'' came to represent ``a lost father figure and a dream betrayed.'' And much more, too.

Peterson finds five principal Lincoln themes running through American memory, ``and like the movements of a symphony they interpret and reinterpret each other.'' These images encompass the Savior of the Union, Great Emancipator, Man of the People, first American, and Self-made Man. They represent ``Nationality, Humanity, Democracy, Americanism, and the individual opportunity which is its essence.'' The Civil War president lives on.

Peterson charts the growth of these visions - an intermingling of history and myth - from Lincoln's assassination to our own time. His chronological focus is on the popular images, with historians and others receiving attention in rough proportion to their public reach. Novelists, dramatists, actors, filmmakers, composers, poets, artists, and cartoonists appear. And illustrations abound, too.

Few hated Lincoln once he was gone; nearly all learned to claim him. Republicans did (Lincoln was one), and so did Democrats; socialists and capitalists, imperialists and anti-imperialists, reformers and reactionaries, protectionists and free traders, as well as free thinkers, prohibitionists and wets, racists and champions of civil rights, Northerners and Southerners.

Though this last group contained the largest share of skeptics, in 1937 the historian-general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy orated in Georgia: ``Let the world know of the wisdom, the kindness, and the justice of the great President of the Confederate States of America, Abraham Lincoln!'' An embarrassing slip, she quickly apologized, but one is reminded of the southern-born historian David Potter's famed comment made at Gettysburg College, that the Confederacy might have won the Civil War had it exchanged presidents with the United States.

``Hard as rock and soft as drifting fog,'' Carl Sandberg wrote, and Peterson adds: more appealing than ``any other national saint or hero.''

The relationship of the Lincoln image to blacks rightly receives special attention. We move from emancipation, with Lincoln entering the realm of mythology first among blacks, through ugly decades when they had to fight blatant racists and the white majorities for Lincoln's memory (``Negro History Week,'' now month, grew out of Emancipation Day celebrations and was scheduled to coincide with both Lincoln's and Frederick Douglass's birthdays); to the civil rights era, where to some blacks Lincoln became an enemy, a honkie.

Race thus serves as a useful category of inquiry in this excellent, readable, and thoughtful book. Using the analytical tools of younger scholars, such as gender and class, would have yielded additional insights. One might also raise questions about Peterson's methods, or quibble about what is included in the volume and what is not, but this deeply respected University of Virginia historian has earned the right to his own views and ways.

Even footnotes can be fascinating. We all know that at the moment of Lincoln's death his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, uttered the words, ``Now he belongs to the ages.'' A footnote informs us that a stenographer heard, ``He belongs to the angels now.'' And so one wonders about the implications of being a secular saint in American society.

When Peterson recently asked a college professor about the mind of today's campus, he was told, ``Lincoln doesn't cut it with these kids any more.''

Though this rings true of the MTV generation, other professors might give different answers. So might a filmmaker like Ken Burns, a sculptor like Seward Johnson, or a man of letters like Garry Wills, who have each captured Lincoln in their own way.

Peterson reasonably places the ``zenith'' of Lincoln in American memory at the three decades preceding the sesquicentennial of his birth in 1959. But no one knows what the future holds. The bicentennial of 2009 is a mere fifteen years away.

One of the most remarkable men who wrote about Lincoln was Walt Whitman. During the war, he often passed the president on the streets of Washington. ``We have got so that we change bows, and very cordial ones,'' the poet wrote.

Then his sad love song of 1865: ``When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.''

In the end, Whitman could not help but give lectures about Lincoln and even thought of writing a biography. That never came to pass, but as one observer noted: ``Something of Lincoln himself seemed to pass into this man who loved and studied him.'' And so it had been with so many others down through the years. So it still is.

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