Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

What Did You Read This Year?

Screen Shot 2012-11-29 at 7.14.11 AMAs I did last year I thought I might give you a chance to share what you enjoyed reading in the area of Civil War history over the past year.  It doesn’t have to have been published this past year and feel free to share something outside the field entirely if you feel moved to do so.

In the meantime here is a taste of my “Best of 2012″ list.  Even though I am only halfway through it, I am giving the Best Biography award to Jason Emerson’s, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012).  I never thought that I would find myself engrossed by the story of Lincoln’s only son to survive to adulthood, but this is a fascinating story.  It was Spielberg’s Lincoln that drove my curiosity.  While the movie offers somewhat of a corrective to Lincoln’s relationship with his wife it offers a very traditional picture of an estranged father-son relationship.

Emerson offers a very different interpretation of this relationship, one that includes a great deal of fatherly affection.  The author also makes a convincing case that Lincoln talked seriously with his son about issues related to the war during his visits home from Harvard.   In fact, it is likely that father and son were engaged in conversation before Lincoln headed off to Ford’s Theater.  You can’t help but sympathize with Robert Todd in the period immediately following his father’s death as he was forced to assume the role of father figure to Tad and caregiver to his aggrieved and increasingly unstable mother.  On top of this he decided not to return to Harvard and instead intern at a Chicago law firm.

I knew that Robert was present at the assassination of President James Garfield and that he was in Buffalo, NY when President McKinley was shot, but I did not know that he was saved on a train platform before his father’s assassination by non-other than Edwin Booth.

This is a big book, but I promise that you will be well rewarded.

Spielberg and Lincoln Redux

Lincoln BlingI may go and see Spielberg’s Lincoln again later this afternoon.  Anyone want to join me?  :-) I’ve done my best to stay on top of what the Lincoln and Civil War communities have had to say.  Here is a rundown:

I shared a few of my own thoughts at the Atlantic.  This is just what I could remember offhand so feel free to include additional reviews in the comments section.  I’ve learned a hell of a lot from reading these folks as well as others.  That said, I am not sure how much I learned about the movie given the rather narrow emphasis on what interpretive threads that were not acknowledged.  Perhaps I would if the movie was somehow fundamentally flawed as a historical document.  No one that I’ve read has said that.  I still find myself agreeing with Timothy Burke, who blogs at Easily Distracted.  Burke’s post was written in response to an early editorial by Foner.

Which is why I think Foner’s response is in some ways just one more front in the long struggle between social history and narrative. I suspect that he and many other historians would find any cinematic representation of any individual playing a key or decisive role in shaping consequential events inadequate–that what we have here is less an argument about particular discrete facts or events or people and more a deeper argument about what really matters in history.

If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.

When we want to say that we don’t think that a given event–or any event–was primarily about powerful or important people and their decisions, then let’s say just that and go from there, accepting the legitimacy of the interpretative argument that follows that statement. Disagreement about interpretation involves but is not reducible to fact, to accuracy, to evidence or to comprehensiveness.

What do you think?

Kate Masur Tries Again

Historian Kate Masur has published another op-ed piece on Spielberg’s Lincoln in which she responds to unnamed critics of her earlier review of the movie at the New York Times. It’s difficult to see what, if anything, is new in this follow-up piece, but in reading it I think I have a better sense of what she and other academics find troubling.  First, I am struck by the fact that the movie has enjoyed close to universal praise.  Yes, there are quibbles with the length of the movie and especially the way the last rush to include a series of events leading up to Lincoln’s death at the end, but overall it looks like Americans enjoyed the movie.  Unfortunately, much of the academic debate over the movie simply ignores the groundswell of enthusiasm for this movie.

Masur uses the opportunity to once again drive home the point that Lincoln gives us little more than passive black characters that in the end are given their freedom by Lincoln and Congress.  This is not an insignificant oversight:

[I]t is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

It’s not that there are no voices of blacks fighting for their freedom, but that they are either not central enough to the story or they are the wrong voices altogether.  Consider her critique of the opening battle scene:

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

I agree that they function in this manner, but they also impart a clear sense of just what was at stake for African Americans in the war and their central role in forging that “new birth of freedom.”  Masur too easily ignores this and instead offers up her own imagined scenes that she believes could have been used in the film to bring it more in line with current historiography.

Masur closes with the following:

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Indeed, and perhaps that is what this comes down to.  What we see in this critique as well as others is the continued tension between biography and social history.  It’s not simply that Masur wants more voices, what she appears to want is a different kind of story/narrative altogether.

Review of Lincoln at the Atlantic

Thanks to my editor, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, for cobbling together an appropriate movie review from my last few posts for my column at the Atlantic.  She saved me a couple of hours of work that I don’t have this week.  For this historian and history educator, the amount of coverage that this movie has received is incredibly encouraging.  I’ve heard from folks from all over the country who have seen the movie and who have reported that audiences applauded at the end.  They applauded even in places like Alabama and Mississippi. :-)  Let’s face it, the release of this movie will be remembered as the most important event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  If you are interested in reading more reviews and commentary, I highly recommend Donald Shaffer and Louis Masur.

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner Are Not Historians

Historians are stakeholders in anything that attempts to tell a story about or represent the past.  The vast majority of these stories pass us by innocently enough, but when the most popular Hollywood director makes a movie about Lincoln we watch and listen closely.  We don’t just watch, we also feel a strong need to educate the general public and point out interpretive shortcomings in popular films.  Spielberg’s Lincoln has certainly opened up the floodgates for Lincoln scholars and Civil War historians.  Over the past few days I’ve read numerous reviews by professional historians, both in print and in my circle of social media friends.  All of them are informative even if they tend to reflect individual research agendas much more than the movie itself.

I’ve already linked to a few reviews, but for this short post I am going to refrain from doing so because my point is not to put anyone on the spot or even to suggest that criticism of a Hollywood movie as historical interpretation is not welcome.  Over the years I have done it myself both on this blog and in print.  When there are gross oversights and distortions it is absolutely essential, but at what point do such reviews come down to nothing more than historians once again talking to one another?

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