Dwight Pitcaithley, former chief historian of the National Park Service, once wrote that the ‘perception’ of an historical artefact is ‘part of the nation’s ritualist public tribute to its own humble origins.’ In firming up ‘the nation’s image’ of itself, this perceived historical artefact is ‘indispensible’. He was referring to Lincoln’s birthplace, the very cabin before you. (Not, of course, to the less humble marble and granite monument around it.)
[This post is a continuation of an earlier one, ‘A Lincoln Road Trip, part one’.]
What did Pitcaithley mean, the public’s ‘perception’ of Lincoln’s birthplace? ‘It is symbolic of a need for an accessible past,’ he went on, ‘and a willingness to embrace myths that are too popular, too powerful, to be diminished by the truth‘ (emphasis mine). So when your eldest asks, ‘Is that really the actual cabin wherein President Lincoln was born?’ you find yourself facing a dilemma. It is one of the fundamental dilemmas of politics. Plato addressed it around 380BC: is the truth good, however it might diminish the national myth?
On the one hand, your thoughts may be expressed by the words of one Robert Todd Lincoln: ‘The structure now enshrined in the great marble building in Kentucky is a fraud when represented as the actual house.’ A fraud! Probably not what little Sonny wants to hear.
On the other hand, America has an obligation to the democratic, right down to the writing of her history. The popular, ahem, and powerful story – the national myth – is in this sense far more important than the pesky truth. For the truth is that there is no way of telling whether the log ornament celebrated as Lincoln’s humble manger is genuine, or if it is just a typical cabin that happened to be in the right place at the right time.
You gaze into the wonder-filled eyes of your son and consider, for justification’s sake, the words of Louis A. Warren: ‘There has always been an acknowledgement … that positive identification of the cabin at this late date could not be established.’ However! ‘However [he goes on!],
‘this admission does not imply that it can be proven the cabin is spurious, and until such positive evidence is available it is unjust and almost sacrilegious to discredit this relic which has brought impressive sensations to thousands of children, women and grown men as well.’
Unjust. Sacrilegious, even. So there it is, American. The cabin, in short, is good; it inspires ‘impressive sensations’. The truth is –
‘Well, son [you say], I for one believe it was his cabin.’ Especially as that’s what the guidebook says.
Or, perhaps you tell him (loudly enough to be overheard) that it isn’t, in point of fact, the real deal. After all, aren’t we a far enough advanced society to face, probably with tall courage or at least a tall latte, such a thing as an inconvenient truth? Or would that sort of answer begin to chip away at the marble?
A note on Spielberg’s Lincoln
When I saw the film Lincoln, which is nominated for a dozen Oscars and ten BAFTAs, I recall wondering – the film gives a slow moment here and there for idle wondering – just what balance had been struck between the ‘true’ story and the ‘good’ one. If you see Spielberg’s film, pay attention to the role in it of storytelling, and also of Spielberg’s role as storyteller, and think on Pitcaithley’s phrase, ‘the nation’s ritualist public tribute to its own humble origins’.
You will see an actor imparting stories (myths? parables?) not just as the lead part in a film about Lincoln, but also in the literal sense, weaving with his lines other figures into the fabric of Spielberg’s America of 1865. The tales don’t always ring true, but they fit the scenes and serve an important purpose. In what ways, I invite you to consider, does the film guide your ‘perception’ of the truth of one historical moment, in order to tell the good story about Lincoln and America? In other words, to invoke Pitcaithley once again, how are you led to ’embrace’ what you are seeing before you?
Some good reads
Without even scratching the surface of our exhaustive inventory on Lincoln, I’ll recommend some further reading from the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library collection.
Lincoln’s Hundred Days (Belknap Press, 2012) by Louis P. Masur
James M. McPherson (Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief) writes that, ‘when Lincoln published a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, warning Confederate states of his intention to issue a final edict on January 1, he did not realize that those two dates stood precisely one hundred days apart. Louis Masur’s Lincoln’s Hundred Days focuses on that crucial period, but it starts more than a year earlier to set the stage for those hundred days, and follows up with the aftermath and consequences of Lincoln’s historic action.’
A recent addition to our collection. Masur is a professor of American history at Rutgers University.
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (Penguin, 2008) by James M. McPherson
McPherson calls Lincoln the greatest commander in chief in American history. ‘In essence,’ he wants to show, ‘Lincoln invented the idea of commander in chief, as neither the Constitution nor existing legislation specified how the president ought to declare war or dictate strategy’. Seems like a rather timely thing to consider.
Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World (Norton, 2008), ed. Eric Foner
In 1876 the abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, ‘no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln’. Undeterred, the contributors to this text believe it is possible even now, especially if the starting point is the interaction between the life and the times.
This book contains essays by Lincoln scholars, including James M. McPherson, Richard Carwardine, and David W. Blight. Blight’s essay, ‘The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics, and Public Memory’, would make for an interesting read, especially after seeing Spielberg’s film.