I am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website. I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content. The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use. My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful. I was very impressed with the documentary. Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man. Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life. From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.
A few moments stand out. I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation. I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery. His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln. I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.
Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper. Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship. I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge. Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.
Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention. At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln. They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc. It’s all so boring and uninformative. Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog. Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate. It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering. Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy. My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery. After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.” I couldn’t agree more.
All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience. The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.