Actually, I’ve never met Harold Holzer, but his review of John Avery’s Lincoln Uber Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America, which can be found in the latest issue of North and South (November 2010) magazine is hilarious. I am not the biggest fan of reviews that go beyond a strict critique of the argument, but as far as I am concerned book published by Pelican Press are open season:
Second, the author suggests that German-born refugees from the 1848 Revolutions in Europe radicalized the Republican Party with foreign-bred Communistic ideas (such outrages as “equality throughout the nation”). their support tipped the election to Lincoln in 1860 thus ending idyllic American life as we knew and loved it, when men were men, and slaves presumably knew their place. This Gone with the Wiener Schnitzel theory would be sickening were it not so silly. Anyone who counts picture-publisher Louis Prang as a dangerous fomenter of socialism, or believes Germans really made Lincoln president (even a big German vote in Missouri beyond a minuscule 2%), has been smoking too many European cigarettes or reading too much Thomas DiLorenzo or the current governor of Virginia…. However, those who seek confirmation of the wildest of old and new conspiracy theories, including the belief that Lincoln’s presidency paved the way for nation-building, FBI stings, the London Blitz, Hiroshima, and the government raid on Waco, need look no further than Lincoln Uber Alles. Let the record show that I said “Waco,” not “wacko,” though either word will do.
Looking for more laughs? Check out the customer reviews on the Amazon site.
Today I showed a segment of Henry L. Gates’s “Looking for Lincoln” to my Civil War Memory class. They enjoyed it and it provides an excellent overview of some of the themes that will be explored in this last full week of classes before the trimester ends. We looked specifically at the segments on emancipation and race. Gates spends time interviewing both David Blight and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Throughout Gates proceeds as if he is on a personal journey to better understand the history of Lincoln as well as the evolution of Lincoln mythology. In a conversation with Goodwin, Gates suggests that his search has left him disillusioned and disappointed to learn that Lincoln harbored racist views or that the impetus for the Emancipation Proclamation was not borne of pure motives, but political expediency and military necessity. In a charming little give and take Goodwin encourages “Skip” not to blame Lincoln for the conflict between history and mythology, but to try to reconcile the two. Goodwin hopes that out of conflict will come empathy for Lincoln and a more sophisticated understanding of his life within the context of the war and the mid-nineteenth century generally.
At one point one of my students wondered out loud whether Gates was really confused about Lincoln. I soon realized that he was inquiring how a professional historian whose area of expertise is race relations and the nineteeth century could be confused about Lincoln. It’s an excellent question. After all, Gates is currently the director of the W.E.B. Dubois Center of African and African American Research at Harvard University. Of course, Gates is not confused about his subject. I tend to think that Gates is modeling the kind of journey that he likely took when studying this subject seriously for the first time and one that he hopes others will take as well. His interviews with professional historians pit him as the outsider who is trying to better understand Lincoln; this comes out clearly in the dinner table scenes with Harold Holzer, James Horton, and David Blight. There was nothing said over dinner that Gates didn’t already know, but the viewer is left with the impression that this is just another step in his journey to better understand Lincoln. In proceeding in this way Gates entices his viewer to join him on this journey. It also works to collapse the distinction between the academic and the neophyte.
All in all I think this is an entertaining approach to the history documentary without having to sacrifice content and scholarship.
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.