Abraham Lincoln has been dead and buried for over 140 years, but that hasn't stopped a lot of folks from thinking about him -- a lot. That's the central theme of Andrew Ferguson's Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America, an exploration of Lincoln's presence in modern American culture. It's a marvelous addition to anyone's summer reading list.
Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, was awakened to the ongoing passion about Lincoln when he read in the Washington Post about an intense protest surrounding the dedication of a Lincoln statue in Richmond, Virginia, near the Tredegar Iron Works, where Confederate cannonballs were manufactured during the "war of Northern aggression." The statue depicted Lincoln and his young son, Tad, at the conclusion of their tour of Richmond shortly after the city's fall to Union troops. And boy, did the Lincoln-obsessed come out to protest. The Sons of Confederate Veterans set up a Web site and peppered local officials to try and derail the statue's installation. Lincoln's presence in the Confederacy's central nervous system was seen as an insult to the memory of fallen Southern soldiers. There was no middle ground to be sought, no compromise to be reached. It's to Ferguson's credit that he can report such protests without reducing the participants involved to crude caricatures, but he more than makes the point when he takes a time-out at a local mall while attending a protest convention of the anti-statue "Abephobes" in Richmond:
That Saturday, I quickly discovered, the convention center was playing host to the annual meeting of the Virginia Association for Early Childhood Education. It's a teacher's union [and] nearly all of them were women, and they formed a near-perfect racial mix. A demographer's dream, an ethnic rainbow, a gorgeous mosaic-whatever the going metaphor is? I didn't want to go back because I was thinking, 'Those guys say they don't like Lincoln, and they don't, but this is what they really hate, this right here. The country turned into something they don't like, and they think Lincoln's responsible, and they'll never forgive him for it.'
Taking potshots at turn-back-the-clock confederates is all well and good, but there are plenty of other things to catch Ferguson's eye. There's the annual convention of Abraham Lincoln impersonators, called the Association of Lincoln Presenters. They gather at Santa Claus, Indiana, to discuss such weighty subjects as how much to charge for a presentation and how to generate publicity with local newspapers. As Lincoln enthusiasts go, they're a fairly madcap bunch. Their vanity license plates say things like ITS ABE, 4 SCORE, and ABES R US. At restaurants, they're inclined to use the old line about sitting at a table since "I'm not real fond of Booths."
Ferguson seems most intrigued by the collectors of Lincoln lore, known as Lincolniana. The reigning champion of Lincoln accessorizing is Frank J. Williams, who in his day job, is Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Williams is a man whose appetite for all things Lincoln seems ever-expanding and unquenchable. His collection, housed mostly at his home, contains 22,000 items, containing books, monographs, correspondence, statuary, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Williams counts over 600 separate speaking engagements as a Lincoln expert, part of his 51 page resume. Williams started out interested in Lincoln while still in grade school (he also credits Lincoln with giving him the inspiration to attend law school), he has transformed his avocation into his life's calling, if only things like making a living wouldn't get in the way. As President of The Lincoln Forum, he's been a regular guest on C-Span and Book TV, and his thick Rhode Island accent is heard as one of the country's foremost experts on Lincoln.
Not all of Ferguson's detours off the Lincoln zeitgeist interstate are successful. His chapter on business consultants who hog-tie Lincoln into expensive all-day seminars on successful change management and corporate group dynamics seems forced and, to be frank, too easy for ridicule (although his hatred of Power Point presentations is well founded and accurate). He seems too pleased with himself as a Washington-based journalist and not a middle-level servant to corporate America who has to endure such two-day indignities as criteria for moving up in one's job. Although one wonders what barbs Ferguson might launch at the new advertising campaign for Rozerem, a prescription sleep medication that features Lincoln and a talking beaver.
Unlike many cultural commentators who sacrifice reporting in pursuit of a good one-liner, Ferguson treats his subject with just the right ratio of humor and sobriety. That's not to say the book isn't often laugh-out-loud funny: it is. My personal favorite is the trenchant observation that the four heads at Mt. Rushmore are aligned like four teenagers in a photo booth. And you have to respect a writer who can say: "The reigning ideology of the Park Service is party poopery -- a constant vigil against anyone taking unauthorized pleasure in a Park Service property. The authority of the men and women who enforce this ideology is only slightly diminished by forcing them to dress like Smokey the Bear."
Land of Lincoln is ultimately a slightly nutty road trip through the hearts and minds of those who still have a tendency to think and discuss Lincoln in the barely-passed tense. Ferguson makes for an agreeable tour guide, pointing out that Lincoln is a modern American Rorschach test: he means different things to different people, and a lot of it involves jamming a square Lincoln into a round 21st Century hole. What Lincoln himself would make of this is unclear. We, however, are welcome to see for ourselves. | May 2007