Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America by Andrew Ferguson
Reviewed by Florence King
The Wilson Quarterly
Looking for the real Abe Lincoln is like looking for Moby Dick, Rosebud, and the silver lining, all at the same time. Do not be fooled by the title of this book. Some stores will inevitably stock it under Travel, but its real purpose is to explore why America's most complex, contradictory president still exerts such a psychological hold over us.
While a boy growing up in Illinois, Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson collected the usual artifacts and memorized the Gettysburg Address, but he had become a Lincoln buff in remission. It seemed to him that Lincoln no longer belonged to the ages but to special pleaders, such as bipolar sufferers who latched on to his melancholia, or imaginative gay-rights advocates who saw a connection between his hellish marriage and the long circuit rides he made with other young lawyers in his Springfield days.
Then in late 2002, Richmond, Virginia, erupted in controversy over the city council's proposal to erect a statue of Lincoln and his son Tad commemorating their brief visit to the Confederate capital at the end of the Civil War. Ferguson covered the story and found that Lincoln was once again the man of the hour, the bee in every bonnet, and the fork in every tongue. On one side were the pro-statue diversity buffs of the "healing power" persuasion, and on the other, hot-eyed cavaliers of the Sons of Confederate Veterans trailed by paranoid homeschoolers who eagerly bought their educational materials (e.g., an "Arm Yourself With the Truth" booklet).
Ferguson realized that the dispute was not about the Civil War itself but about what kind of man Lincoln was. The cavaliers, citing his proposal to repatriate blacks to Africa, saw him as a hypocritical closet racist and a war mongering Big Government dictator, while the pro-statue crowd saw him as approachable, introspective, nuanced, and comfortable with ambiguity -- or, in Ferguson's delicious analogy, "If Lincoln had been born 125 years later, he could have been Bill Moyers."
Americans, it seems, still need Lincoln to love or to hate, to explain or to excuse, to identify whatever it is about ourselves we consider essential. To understand ourselves we must first understand Lincoln, Ferguson suggests, and so he embarked on an American odyssey in search of people and places whose inner Lincoln lives on.
He gained entree to memorabilia collectors such as Louise Taper of Beverly Hills, who owns one of the largest private collections of Lincolniana. Her interest in Lincoln began when she read Love Is Eternal, a 1950s historical romance novel by Irving Stone based on the Lincoln marriage. She began to haunt rare-books-and-manuscripts outlets, in part, she speculates, as a way to escape the fate of being one of the ladies who lunch. She got so good at identifying Lincoln's authentic handwriting that today she is an expert in the field.
Taper couldn't quite nail down the reason she's so taken with Lincoln, except to say, "He was just an amazing man." She came closer to the truth when she spoke about Mary Todd Lincoln, Lincoln's wife and the heroine of the novel that started it all: "People hated her because she didn't fit the mold." Ferguson insightfully connects her Lincoln obsession with the pains she takes to avoid becoming another typical Beverly Hills matron. For Mrs. Taper, Lincoln plays a seemingly unlikely role: He's the inspiration for a feminist-style journey by this woman who is determined to chart an individual course.
The last place Ferguson expected to find Lincoln was in a management training seminar held in Gettysburg, but there he was, presented as the ultimate successful executive. Lincoln as business guru is, Ferguson points out, a stretch. His brief career as clerk of a frontier store ended when "the store went broke so spectacularly that its proprietor felt compelled to flee the territory." All his closest associates spoke on record about his dearth of money sense, his chaotic law office, his disregard for systems, and his lack of any head for figures. He forgot to cash his paychecks and kept important papers in his hat.
What could a corporate seminar do with such a man? Ferguson, who published a hysterical essay on the self-improvement industry in his first book, Fools' Names, Fools' Faces (1996), mimics the way PowerPoint software might boil down one of the most exquisite prose styles in the English language:
Vision: Big Picture
- 4 x 20 + 7 = 87 years ago
- Forefathers -- continent -- new nation
- Key Proposition: Everybody Equal
- Civil war -- long endurance test
- Battlefield = cemetery (final resting place) = hallowed ground
- Caveats: cannot dedicate
- Action step: new birth of freedom
Ferguson figured that the Lincoln facilitators would merely teach history from a different angle, but by the seminar's end he realized that they weren't just teaching history, or even business techniques, but "something else that, nowadays, is harder to come by, and harder to make stick": "They've taken the most American of pursuits, and potentially the most crassifying -- getting ahead, making lots of money, climbing the greasy pole of success -- and turned it into an occasion for painless, gentle moral instruction. Lincoln lets them do it."
Spending a couple of days studying this man who talked about "the better angels of our nature," who felt malice toward none and charity to all, who personified our ideal of equality, is bound to have a positive effect on people committed to the workshop mindset of conflict resolution, anger management, and group decision-making. And better people, so the thinking goes, make better leaders. At the very least, Ferguson suggests, dwelling on the kindness, sympathy, and patience Lincoln so often displayed might in some small way help stem the tide of coarseness overtaking American life.
The same regard for a blend of moneymaking and personal growth pervades the Lincoln Presenters -- they reject the label "impersonators" as too show-biz. They're mostly tall, lanky men who were told so often that they looked like Lincoln that they decided to turn it into a career. Headquartered in Cincinnati, the group was founded in 1990 and now numbers more than 250. Presenters hire themselves out to speak to organizations, march in parades, and in general make history pay. In these reenactment-happy times, some of them even make a living at it: $50 for cutting a ribbon and $200 for a major appearance. The job requires them to log a lot of time on the road, and sometimes they have to sleep in their cars, but they feel a calling. "Lincoln is as close to perfect as a human being could be," said one. "That's what gives us a sense of mission."
The only place Ferguson visited that is immune to inspiration and beyond redemption is the Lincoln homestead in Springfield, now part of the Lincoln Heritage Trail preservation project run by the federal government. "The reigning ideology of the Park Service is party poopery -- a constant vigil against anyone taking unauthorized pleasure in a Park Service property." The funky authenticity he remembers from his boyhood visits is gone; everything near the house has been torn down, replaced by a sterile visitors' center. Inside, a theater loops through an orientation film. Security cameras monitor all who enter. Speakers broadcast constant announcements ("Your safety is our primary concern....A heart defibrillator is located in the visitors' center") and warnings that an alarm will sound if visitors step off the rubber walking guides. Worst of all are the robotic Smoky the Bear-garbed guides, their voices flattened by the boredom of reciting the same memorized material day after day, who rattle off their speeches so mechanically that they lose all power of inflection and say things like "We are now in the parlor."
Andrew Ferguson is a writer with perfect pitch and flawless timing who can go from hilarity to poignancy without missing a beat. Whether he is describing the seedy glories of Route 66 or the Holocaust survivor who believed Lincoln came to him in a dream, his reporter's powers of observation and his instinctive understanding of the human condition produce the satisfying blend of entertainment and instruction he delivers in this marvelous book.
Florence King writes a column, "The Bent Pin," for National Review.