Happy Thanksgiving

Hope all of you have a Happy Thanksgiving today.  Enjoy the time with family and do yourself a favor and hold off on the shopping until tomorrow and please be safe if you are on the roads this weekend. Looks like the Virginia Historical Society is trying to reassert itself as hosting the first Thanksgiving.  I will run this by Myles Standish later today to see what he thinks.  Nice try Virginia, but second place is still respectable.

I finally saw Spielberg’s Lincoln movie yesterday and plan on sharing some thoughts in the next few days.  I thoroughly enjoyed Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln and the movie’s emphasis on the messiness of politics.  Now that I’ve read a few reviews of the movie I am convinced that historians might be the worst people to evaluate a historical movie.  More later.

Richmond is for Lincoln

I am hoping to catch Spielberg’s Lincoln movie this weekend.  My plan is to write a review, but please don’t expect a narrowly-focused critique of how well the film reflects current Lincoln/Civil War historiography.  Such an approach almost always fails to capture the intention of why people make movies and why we go to see them.  As a historian and teacher, what I look forward to seeing is theatergoers and students who are sufficiently moved to learn more by picking up a book or traveling to the historic sites themselves.

The state’s department of tourism has already created a website that allows visitors to follow Lincoln’s movie and historical footsteps through Richmond and Petersburg.  They are assuming that the movie buzz will bring people to Richmond.  I assume the NPS will be offering guided tours and other materials to help tourists navigate their way through these two cities and we can assume that other historical institutions in the area will also benefit from increased traffic.

The tour offers a blend of Hollywood and history, with Richmond standing in for Washington, D.C., and historic Petersburg portraying itself. Lincoln spent a good deal of the final days of the Civil War in both cities. As emancipated people cheered, he famously walked the streets of the smoldering former capital of the Confederacy in April 1865 as it fell to Union forces. Lincoln also spent about two weeks in Petersburg, home to the longest military siege on American soil. Its architecture still bears the scars of the war, including cannonballs embedded in brick facades.

I just love the idea of visitors walking Richmond’s streets with Lincoln on their mind just as thousands did when he visited the city in April 1865.  It’s, after all,  American history, folks.

Essential Lincoln Reading

I’ve already received a few emails asking for recommendations on books about Abraham Lincoln.  Since I anticipate more of these requests after tomorrow, I thought it might be a good idea to put together a short list of Lincoln books.  My recommendations are for those of you who walk out of the theater in the next few weeks and want to learn something more about our 16th president, but are not interested in a dry scholarly study.  It’s a good thing that Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, is being released not so much after the election, but after the Lincoln bicentennial as the offerings are broad and deep.

The best overall biography of Lincoln remains David H. Donald’s Lincoln.  You can find it at most bookstores as well as most decent used books shops.  Though not a traditional biography, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is the best broad study of Lincoln and the evolution of his views on race and slavery.  If you are looking for something that you can read in short bursts that debunks many of the long-standing myths about Lincoln, I suggest Gerald Prokopowicz’s Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln.  Finally, since the movie is loosely based on her book you may want to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

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Lincoln, Obama, and Christie Show Us the Way

The decision to delay the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln until after November 6 is a facile attempt to disassociate it from the presidential election.  It’s unavoidable and doomed to give us a skewed view not only of our own political climate, but that of the 1860s as well.  Hurricane Sandy may have caused unprecedented destruction in places like New York City and New Jersey, but for a brief moment it paved the way for what appears to be an apolitical embrace between Republican Governor Christie of New Jersey and President Obama.  Whether it is apolitical is not so important as that it is perceived by many on both sides of the aisle as a welcome respite from the usual vitriol for the purposes of aiding those in need.

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Sally Field Reflects on Mary Todd Lincoln

Like many of you I am looking forward to seeing Speilberg’s film, Lincoln.  There is quite a buzz, which I hope translates into a good showing at the box office.  As long as we don’t get carried away with critiquing the film along the narrow lines of historical accuracy we should be just fine.  I am hoping Daniel Day-Lewis presents us with a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln that is placed within a solid historical context.  I am not looking for nor do I desire a scholarly treatment of Lincoln.  First and foremost, I want to be entertained.  I plan on writing a review for the Atlantic and I have agreed to take part in a roundtable discussion that will appear at some point in the journal, Civil War History.

I am also looking forward to seeing what Sally Field does with Mary Todd.  If anyone deserves a sympathetic treatment it’s Mary Todd and after listening to Field reflect on her character I am confident that this is just what we will see.  It would have been easy to present the popular view of an unstable woman, who caused her husband nothing but trouble.  Remember Mary Tyler Moore in the TV adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln? This is still a common theme in the Lincoln literature as well.  Back in 2007 I taught an elective on Lincoln, which included a couple of classes on Mary Todd.  Students examined a number of secondary sources including an essay by Jean H. Baker in which she offers her own interpretation of why this particular view continues to hold sway.