UC Davis history professor Ari Kelman has written a long and interesting review article for the latest TLS, surveying four recent books about Abraham Lincoln.
He makes a particularly compelling case for Looking for Lincoln: The making of an American icon, by the documentary-writing-producing team of Kunhardts (Peter B. III, Peter W., and Peter W. Jr.), who know their way around a story and how to tell it. Looking for Lincoln began life as a PBS documentary broadcast on the eve of the sixteenth president’s bicentenary last month. The book is actually a companion to the DVD.
The story of Lincoln’s murder, though frequently retold, feels like a new wound here. The impact stems from a formula the Kunhardts employ throughout their book. They begin chapters by recounting, with only light analytical interventions, a representative event from the years after the assassination, moments in which key memories of Lincoln took root in the culture. They then include brief excerpts from eyewitnesses, including, in the book’s opening chapter, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s bloodless statement: “The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal”. So it was. In this way, the Kunhardts allow history’s actors, famous, infamous, anonymous, to speak for themselves. Finally, an extraordinary array of images – drawings, newspaper clippings, editorial cartoons, paintings, photographs – render what might otherwise have been an episodic history into something organic. A grainy photo of the room in which Lincoln died, for example, provides the first chapter’s motif. A bloodstained pillow, easy to miss at first glance, transforms an otherwise innocuous tableau of rumpled covers, a framed landscape print hanging over a spindle bed, and an empty chair, into one of history’s most notorious death scenes.
In the aftermath of the assassination, the Kunhardts travel on to Easter Sunday, 1865, when Northern preachers began comparing Lincoln to Christ; to New York City, that same year, when a young boy named Teddy Roosevelt, who later modelled his politics on Lincoln’s, watched the funeral train; to the studios of artists and sculptors, whose works etched Lincoln’s image – the deeply lined face, the rangy body with absurdly long limbs, and of course the iconic top hat – into the national imagination; to the Lincoln centennial in 1909, celebrated in both North and South, sections reunited by a common desire to get back to the business of doing business; to the parlours of authors who published Lincoln biographies that still inform our judgements; to the start of construction on both the Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC and the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota’s Black Hills; and finally, in 1923, to the Library of Congress, where Robert Lincoln, who until then had jealously guarded his father’s reputation, turned his papers over to the American people for posterity.
With these cases and others, the Kunhardts demonstrate the futility of separating history and memory where Lincoln is concerned.
One of the sixteenth president’s top hats dominates the cover of the Kunhardts’ Looking for Lincoln. The PBS documentary has an excellent and interactive website on which you can watch the entire show.