June 2007

Andrew Benedict-Nelson

nonfiction

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America by Andrew Ferguson

I had never been in an anti-war rally until I visited London. The day after I arrived was the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and I had already planned on seeing the principal sites: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Parliament. Doing it with several hundred thousand activists seemed as good a walking tour as any.

Like many Americans abroad, though, I soon found myself a habitual apologist. Even my placard reflected it: “Don’t blame me, I voted for Kerry!” As many people pointed out to me, I probably could have come up with a more effective way to defend my country’s contributions to the world.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I found it: unexpectedly, in Parliament Square, a replica of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that stands in my current home, Chicago. If the Brits consider Honest Abe to be in the same rank as Churchill and Disraeli, the Atlantic Alliance might just be all right.

It seemed like an exceptional moment to me, but according to Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln, it’s a fairly frequent American experience. We all look for ourselves in Lincoln, our own identities and aspirations. Ferguson explores this trend by traveling the country and hanging out with buffs, collectors, impersonators, scholars, and even the occasional Lincoln-haters. And somehow, by immersing himself in the kitschy world of Lincolniana, he manages to transcend the hype and help us better understand why we admire this man in the first place.

Land of Lincoln is the second book from Ferguson, who is also a columnist and senior editor at the conservative Weekly Standard. His politics show a bit as he bristles against political correctness and social historians, but he is also an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, equally skeptical that Lincoln was an orthodox Christian or that he had anything to teach us about, say, corporate management (as one leadership seminar would have it).

Far more important is Ferguson’s practiced combination of honest reporting and rhetorical barbs. He is capable of writing comic scenes featuring self-important Lincoln authorities or obsessive collectors (including the owner of Lincoln’s very own chamber pot) without seeming petty or disrespectful. He is also a master of dictional dichotomy. Consider, for example, this passage on Dale Carnegie, the self-help writer who was also an amateur Lincoln historian and despiser of Mary Todd: “He wanted to feel for himself Lincoln’s domestic torment at the hands of Mary; so he sets up his typewriter in the parlor of the Springfield house on Jackson and Eighth, to hear through the wobbling ectoplasm the faint echo of her bitching.”

Ferguson’s journalistic skill also enables him to include several textual and actual side trips, in a manner similar to Bill Bryson. Some of these are simply the result of a careful observation or asking the right question, as when he talks with a group of Lincoln impersonators (er, presenters) about how Abe should react when a child asks him how he died.

But others excursions are more subtle. When Ferguson visits Richmond to find out exactly why there is so much controversy over a proposed Lincoln statue there, he spends much of his time with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But he also happens to wander into a cafeteria where some members of a teacher’s union are lunching.

When he mentions he is writing a book on Lincoln, one of them replies, unconvincingly, “History! Isn’t that interesting?” Having found the Confederate sons surprisingly decent, Ferguson concludes: “Those guys say they don’t like Lincoln, and they don’t, but this is what they really hate, this right here. The country turned into something they don’t like, and they think Lincoln’s responsible, and they’ll never forgive him for it.”

The diversity and absurdity of this “Lincolnworld” can seem dizzying. There are times when it’s hard to determine exactly where Ferguson’s narrative is headed, especially as he intertwines his own memories of various Lincoln symbols and sites. But, fortunately, Ferguson is also conscious of this aspect of his story, and uses it to great effect in his final chapter.

By the time we have shared all these perspectives on Lincoln, seen him turned to every conceivable commercial and social and political purpose, we start to feel like we are outsiders to our own culture and its love affair with ephemera. We shed the folksy stories and historical second-guessing and see the moral truth behind the icon, just as one gradually sees the Gettysburg Address in the background of the man at the famous memorial.

It is fitting then, that Ferguson’s most poignant and final perspective on Lincoln does not come from an American at all, but from a Czech survivor of the Holocaust. It made me think back on those statues in Parliament Square. A representation of Nelson Mandela is about to be installed there. Churchill and Mandela -- it is nice to think of the juxtaposition. It is fulfilling to step back out of our history, to think that one of us helped make this possible.

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America by Andrew Ferguson
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0871139677
288 Pages