Learning Lincoln

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With reference to Clyde Wilson’s “Civil War Cinema” (Vital Signs, May), I have to admit that I liked the movie Lincoln, in spite of its 21st-century sensibilities.  Still, even I thought it was straining credulity to the breaking point when the black soldier started lecturing Lincoln on the various racial inequities in the Union Army.  Grace Slick would have had an easier time walking up to Agnew at a reception and spouting her views on the Vietnam War.

Dr. Wilson, what is your favorite Lincoln biography?  For that matter, of the recent ones, which one do you think is the worst?

—Garth Gould
via e-mail

Dr. Wilson Replies:

It’s said that more has been written about Lincoln than any other person, with the possible exceptions of Jesus and Elvis.  I am by no means an authority on Lincoln literature, especially the more recent.  It would be a waste of time to become so.  Lincoln is the great saint of American myth, and it is amazingly difficult to treat him like any other historical figure.  The two books by Thomas DiLorenzo—Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe (2006) and The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (2003)—give a good review of the pervasive suppression of major facts of Lincoln’s career and of the fantasy nature of much of what is written and believed.  Lincoln: The Man by the poet Edgar Lee Masters is useful because Masters spent his life right in Lincoln’s geographic home region.  There are, in fact, good works, too numerous to mention, that focus on particular limited aspects of Lincoln’s career and therefore cannot entirely ignore facts and context.  Sources are always better than secondhand stories.  A good way to start getting to know the real Lincoln is to read his own letters and speeches published in the edition edited by Roy P. Basler.  We know, however, that Lincoln’s son destroyed a large quantity of his papers, which is very curious considering Lincoln’s centrality to American history.

 

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