Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book review: Andrew Ferguson's "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America"

Abraham Lincoln has shrunk over the years. Not his height of course, his physical size is one of the few things Lincoln buffs, Lincoln scholars, and Lincoln-haters agree on.

Author Andrew Ferguson set out to find the new and diminished 21st century Lincoln and writes what he found in Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.

As he writes in his foreword:

From the enormous figure of the past he's been reduced to a hobbyist's eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self selected subculture, like quilting or Irish step dancing. He's been detached from the national patrimony, if we can have a national patrimony any longer. He's no longer our common possession. That earlier Lincoln, that larger Lincoln, seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.

But a newspaper headline caught Ferguson's eye, one about opposition to a Lincoln stature in Richmond. Lincoln mattered to these southerners.

And so the adventure begins. Ferguson makes a rendezvous with the the anti-Lincoln group in Richmond as the statue unveiling looms over the former Confederate capital. He also attends a couple of Lincoln conference, where Ferguson comes to the conclusion during a Lincoln symposium, one with a decided liberal bent, that the participants believed "If Lincoln had been born 125 years later, he could have been Bill Moyers."

When Ferguson reconnects with an anti-Lincolnite, he's sarcastically asked, "Did you learn about the greatness of the great man?"--Ferguson counters with, "They think he was a wimp."

"Jesus, even I don't think he was a wimp" was the reply he got.

Naturally Ferguson spends a lot of time in Springfield, and meets with Julie Cellini, secretary of the board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. The author doesn't overlook her powerful lobbyist husband, Bill, and his controversial business dealings with the Abraham Lincoln Hotel and downstate casino.

As it's hard to write about Illinois' state capital without bringing up politics, the corruption of sleaze is not overlooked either. And he doesn't stop there...

Ferguson recalls a conversation with a professor who specializes in the 16th president about the "impossibility" of getting jobs for his graduate students at Illinois Historic Preservation agency and the state library, saying "These are good scholars who would kill for these positions. But the jobs always went to the party hacks."

Ferguson was in attendance at the 2005 grand opening of the Lincoln Library, and goes behind to scene to tell the story of the story-tellers--and the dreaded "D" word--Disney--figures in prominently in this part of the tale.

Ferguson makes his way to New Salem, the Chicago Historical Society, a Chicago Thai restaurant with a Lincoln shrine, a Lincoln re-enactors convention, Lincoln's birthplace site in Kentucky, Gettysburg, and he even catches a musical rendition of Lincoln's life in southern Indiana.

Don't laugh: Each summer, Medora, North Dakota puts on a similar show for Theodore Roosevelt. David Soul, who appeared in the 1970s TV cop show "Starsky and Hutch," is an alumnus of that musical.

The author finds the resolve, something that I didn't do when I visited Springfield earlier this year, to stop in at the Museum of Funeral Customs--where there is of course a Lincoln exhibit.

"Death is only the beginning" is the museum's motto. Perhaps I'll drop by the next time I'm in Springfield. Or maybe the time after that...

If you've read this far, you've probably made it through at least one Lincoln book, this book should be your next.

And it's nice to know Lincoln still matters, despite the multi-front attempts to bring him down that will continue long past the sleep-aid drug Rozerem fades away.

Related posts:

Andrew Ferguson video on his new book, Land of Lincoln
Thirty hours in Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois
Bush to kick off Lincoln bicentennial celebration next Feb. 12
Abraham Lincoln birthplace site
Abraham Lincoln birthplace site's log cabin
"My earliest recollection is of the Knob Creek place"
I found this bit of history in downtown Chicago today
Lincoln Bicentennial Commission playing with Lincoln Logs
Illinois lagging in Lincoln bicentennial celebrations

Thanks for the link: The Abraham Lincoln Blog

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