STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A new book about America's 16th President begins with the following words.
Mr. ANDREW FERGUSON (Author, "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America"): More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American - nearly 14,000 in all - and at least half of those books begin by saying that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. This book, you'll notice, is one of them.
INSKEEP: That's the writer Andrew Ferguson who came by to read those words and to talk about his quest for Abraham Lincoln as he lives today. Lincoln, of course, was killed by an assassin in 1865. But the book, "Land of Lincoln," explores the way that modern-day Americans treasure, preserve, exploit or assault his memory. Mr. Ferguson, welcome to the program.
Mr. FERGUSON: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: Okay, we know that politicians invoke Abraham Lincoln all the time, but you spent time with a lot of other kinds of people who are focused on Lincoln. What kinds of people?
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, it is pretty much as broad a range as America itself. You know, I grew up as a, I guess you'd call it a Lincoln buff. And as a kid in the early '60s, you know, Lincoln kind of hovered over the country as this huge figure, this sort of great national possession. But I noticed over the years that, especially the last generation, he seemed to have been shrunk, cut to fit our own personal obsessions and biases. And, you know, you see it in the books. I saw there was a book proving that Lincoln was a fundamentalist Christian that was written by a fundamentalist Christian.
There was a book written that his greatness lay in his struggle with clinical depression written by a journalist who struggled with clinical depression. Of course, most famously there was the one in 2005 proving that Abraham Lincoln was an active homosexual written by a homosexual activist. But I wanted to see if there was still sort of a universal Lincoln that we could all draw inspiration from.
INSKEEP: Instead of trying to get God on their side, people have been trying to get Lincoln on their side. That's what this is.
Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah, absolutely. The way I put it in the book is, for years, we've all said that we wanted our children to be like Lincoln: kind, resolute, principled. But really what we want is for Lincoln to be like us.
INSKEEP: So how has the perception of this man changed since 1865 when he was killed?
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, he was shot on Good Friday and died the next morning. By Sunday, preachers all around the country, which was, of course, Easter Sunday, were mounting their pulpits and declaring that while Jesus died to save humankind from their sins, Lincoln had died to save the Union. And he became a martyr instantaneously. And for that reason we've never quite been able to see him square on. You know, people who knew him and had spent a great deal of time with him tended to impose a self-censorship in which they wouldn't quite dare to relate stories that might have put a little chink into the plaster saint.
INSKEEP: All of his biographies were immediately tainted is what you're saying.
Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah, and I think that we still feel that self-censorship today. A perfect example is that Lincoln loved off-color stories. In fact, pretty dirty stories, as it happens. Very few people wanted to mention this while the sense of his martyrdom was still fresh, but there are a few examples of them and they drifted to the bottom of the pile over the few years. I managed to dig some of them out, and they're pretty dirty, some of these things. But the point is that the fullness of the man was lost through the sense of his martyrdom.
INSKEEP: There are people who speak of him or treat him almost like an angel. There are people who treat him like the devil.
Mr. FERGUSON: A very large number, actually, a surprisingly large number. I woke up one morning a couple years ago and there was a headline in the newspaper that said, Lincoln Statue Stirs Outrage in Richmond. And, you know, the words outrage and Lincoln are not words that you usually see in the same sentence, but…
INSKEEP: Richmond, Virginia…
Mr. FERGUSON: This is Richmond, Virginia, which of course…
Mr. FERGUSON: Yes, it was the capital of the Confederacy. The city fathers down there decided they would put in a statue to Lincoln and just touched off a firestorm, I think to their great surprise. Maybe they shouldn't have been surprised. But there were demonstrations in the street and letter-writing campaigns and advertisements in the newspapers. A big scholarly conference was put on in a downtown hotel trying to prove why Lincoln was not, at all, the great saint that he was portrayed to be. His racial views were much more complicated than anyone wanted to admit. He…
INSKEEP: He made a lot of statements in speeches that you would - you'd be done in politics if he made them today.
Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah. And what happened to these guys growing up, they heard the great mythic Lincoln, of Lincoln sort of as the great racial liberal. When they discovered that he wasn't, they swung all the way over to the other side and decided, well, he must have been a white supremacist and hated black people. That isn't any truer than the earlier caricature. They sort of overreacted.
INSKEEP: So how easy was it, as you went on the search for Abraham Lincoln, to actually run into a guy with a beard, with a tall hat, with a suit from 1865 saying, hello, I'm Abraham Lincoln?
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, you know, in our business, we believe in the journalism gods, and I knew they were smiling on me when a friend called up and said that there was an organization called the ALP, the Abraham Lincoln Presenters, and they were having their annual convention that year in Santa Claus, Indiana, in the only motel there, called Santa's Lodge. And these are men who do - who actually make a living dressing up like Abraham Lincoln. So I got in my car, I drove down, parked my car outside Santa's Lodge, walked through the doors. There was - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is playing over tinny speaker with little animatronic elves working at their workbenches, little snowdrifts of cotton balls, a little tiny train on its track, and 75 guys dressed exactly like Abraham Lincoln staring back at me.
Anyway, they turned out to be wonderful, wonderful guys. They knew a lot about Lincoln in many cases. They wanted to sort of conjure up the spirit of Lincoln. The sad part was that a fairly large number of them bore no resemblance to Abraham Lincoln whatsoever.
INSKEEP: Short, pot-bellied guys.
Mr. FERGUSON: Exactly. There were bald guys, there were short guys, there were little roly-poly guys. But to them, see, Lincoln was sort of a spiritual identification.
INSKEEP: Did you feel, as you traveled the country, that you got any closer to understanding the spirit of Lincoln himself, who the guy was?
Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah, you know, I - yes, I did. And while we may bicker about what his particular racial views are, and whether he was nice to his wife or his kids, or how hard he worked or whatever these particulars are, we're in danger of forgetting what the icon represents. When you go to the Lincoln Memorial and you read, on one hand, the Gettysburg Address and you read the Second Inaugural on the other side, and you look at the statue, there is more of the true essence of Lincoln in that icon, that much-disparaged icon, than there is in the stacks of books that have been written about him over the last 50 years.
INSKEEP: Can you quote for me some of those words just to leave us with here?
Mr. FERGUSON: These are the essential words of the American creed: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson, thanks very much.
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: He's the author of "Land of Lincoln."
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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