Thursday, June 07, 2007

Book Review: "Land of Lincoln"

Using the narrative model put to such effective use by Tony Horwitz in his Confederates in the Attic, Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson explores the man, the myth, the icon that is Abraham Lincoln in Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007). By visiting some of the many Lincoln sites, interviewing some of the premiere collectors of Lincolniana, attending a convention of Lincoln impersonators (or 'presenters', as he says they prefer to be called), and even speaking with a few Lincoln "haters," Ferguson attempts to reconcile some of his own longstanding perceptions of Lincoln with what he sees as the wider societal view of our sixteenth president.

If you find it possible to get past Ferguson's shocking conclusion that Lincoln was a complicated guy and his legacy's just as complicated (not exactly breaking news, I hope, to anyone who's ever thought much about the matter), there is much of interest in this book. His examination of the recent overhauls of major Lincoln exhibits at the Chicago Historical Society and the creation of the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield are quite good - it's worrisome (to say the least) to think that the consultants who design exhibits for Disney are now also designing museums, and Ferguson's discussions with these designers (who threw about phrases like "emotional engineering", the type that make me cringe) are quite enlightening.

The interviews with top collectors of Lincoln memorabilia made for excellent reading, while Ferguson's retelling of his trip to a workshop based around promoting "Lincoln's values" fell flat. The only thing worse than having to attend a crappy workshop is reading about attending a crappy workshop. More to the point, as Ferguson points out, using Lincoln as a literal managerial model may not be the best idea. There are some amusing moments, as when Ferguson learns that the "Lincoln Heritage Trail" he wanted to recreate for his children to replicate a trip he took with his own parents was a gimmick dreamed up in the 1960s by the American Petroleum Institute to promote road tripping and gas consumption.

Ferguson gets a bit overly snarky about the National Park Service for my taste ("The reigning ideology of the Park Service is party poopery - a constant vigil against anyone taking unauthorized pleasure in a Park Service property", pg. 216). Yes, they make things a little clinical, but they do their job with what minimal resources they're given. You want to improve service at national parks? Support upping their budgets, don't complain about them.

In the end, Ferguson comes around to arguing that in the end, "I was more grateful for the icon. I was happy to find a Lincoln that was simpler and more plausible than the ones I'd gotten from scholars, haters, publicists, and buffs" (pg. 261). Whatever helps you sleep at night, I guess, but my view is that while we can all be grateful for the "icon" Lincoln has become, and admire him for the courage, wisdom, vision and perseverance he displayed, we should also seek to understand him as a person. This doesn't mean making him into soundbites or PowerPoint slides or dissecting his every word or action for signs of x or y or z (you name it, there's been a book or a paper written suggesting it). It does mean grappling with the fact that like all human beings, Lincoln wasn't born as a marble statue, that he held views which we may find go against the "iconic" image. Such is life, and such was Lincoln.

I must, as I often do, take issue with the way Ferguson documents his sources. He's got a couple of brief paragraphs discussing sources he used, but often in the text he offhandedly mentions books or authors without offering even a "for further reading" list, let along a bibliogaphy. Even worse, at several points he quotes authors without saying who they are or where the quote is from (see pg. 264, for example) - this is a frustrating and easily remedied habit that should not be allowed to continue.

At its core, this is a reasonably interesting trek through the Lincoln milieu. It's got a few faults, but the premise is worthwhile and much of the content holds up.