Raab on Forbes: A Lincoln Revival

This appeared on Nathan's blog, Historically Speaking, on Forbes.com on May 1.  Raab Collection article on Forbes.

It is time we called this what it is: an Abraham Lincoln Revival.  In an era of social media and a constantly revolving news cycle, our national attention has been so steadfastly fixed on one man that it seems hard to avoid him, even if you wanted.  The 16th President, widely admired for so long, is now coming to us via so many compelling and varied interpretations, both popular and scholarly, that it seems to pervade all aspects of our culture.   We have loved him for a long time, but somehow this feels different.

There is evidence aplenty.  Few had not heard the term “Team of Rivals” from either the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin or the constant references to President Obama’s cabinet.  Fast forward to the blockbuster movie “Lincoln,” a powerful and serious work, a testament to the depth and greatness of the man; Another movie, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” took a “different” perspective; Bill O’Reilly’s work, “Killing Lincoln,” brought Lincoln to the New York Times Bestseller List for months, and it remains there today; Nat Geo has adapted that book into a record-setting television drama, which joined “The Assassination of President Lincoln,” previously on PBS; The National Constitution Center’s traveling exhibit on Lincoln, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, has gone to Gettysburg and will travel until 2015; and the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, which has undertaken a new and 21st century effort to catalog and digitally scan every letter sent by or to Lincoln, is traveling the country hunting Lincoln’s works in private and public collections.  The Raab Collection, my company, which sells historical documents signed by Presidents, last year sold more pieces signed by Lincoln than by many other Presidents combined, in spite of the higher price tag.

And Lincoln is in the news and online.  Virtually every presidential, congressional, and local candidate conjure him when appealing to our loftiest ideals.  Book tours abound.  He has several posthumous Twitter and Facebook accounts, which he evidently uses. There’s no denying Lincoln’s celebrity, and we appear to have reached a high point.  He is everywhere.

Daniel Stowell, Director of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project, noted the divergent, compounding representations of Lincoln in a recent conversation.   ”The presence of this irreverent pop culture in ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ and a much more serious biography of a portion of Lincoln’s life in Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ aimed at the broader populace, and O’Reilly’s book, certainly indicate a renewed interest,” he told me.

Other eras have had their periods of heightened appreciation of Lincoln, and general interest in Lincoln has never really waned.  After his assassination, a nation grieved, and artists and writers, among them Walt Whitman, poured out their reverence for a fallen leader.  At the dawn of the 20th century, a dying generation of Lincoln’s contemporaries, many of whom had fought in the Civil War, came together to remember their struggles.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, much attention was paid to the Civil War Centennial, and comic books featuring Lincoln and his axe, as well as the commercial sensation, Lincoln Logs, were popular.  But today’s revival is so omnipresent in an otherwise relentlessly distracted world that it bears noting.  It seems we can focus on nothing that lasts more than 1-2 news cycles, except the beard and top hot.

“Here I see Lincoln as strong in the face of adversity, a tilt to the head, and also a sadness that marks the end of days,” Harold Holzer said when we spoke recently.  Holzer is Chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, Roger Hertog Fellow at the New York Historical Society, and generally a man who loves and knows Lincoln.

The "Thomas Lincoln" Bust

We were standing in front of a new bust of Abraham Lincoln, unveiled just days earlier amid great fanfare at the New York Historical Society, the first important new bust in many decades and yet another testament to our modern Lincoln revival.  The unveiling was a star-studded affair.  Tony Bennett, Sumner Redstone, Judy Collins, and several politicians were there.  The “Thomas Abraham Lincoln,” whose patron is Shawn Thomas, a CPA and collector of historical artifacts, is the work of sculptor Frank Porcu.  Thomas’s goal in commissioning the work: to “truly capture the essence of the man… determined and powerful,” he wrote me.  Porcu’s sculpture is dramatic and clearly geared to evoke character.   “This is really a virtuoso performance by a sculptor…  it is distinctive and beautifully crafted,” said Holzer.  The result shows Lincoln’s “personality and power.”  Where many have relied slavishly on a life mask created in 1860 by Leonard Volk, reasons Holzer, Porcu’s work is characterized by creativity that lets the man shine through.

The Thomas Bust might help us understand the secret of Lincoln’s enduring power to influence an evolving nation.  Thomas has aimed to create a man of strength but also, as Porcu later described it, to envision “a man personal friends would encounter once the doors closed behind them away from the public eye.”

George Washington exists in our historical memory as stoic and dispassionate.  But Abraham Lincoln seems somehow closer, more human, tortured, vulnerable, but moral, powerful, and transformative.  This allows us to identify with him on a personal and not purely historical level.  We want to know who he was, not only what he did.  We all know a different Abraham Lincoln, and we love him.   He was the Great Emancipator, the pragmatic politician, the hero of the Union, the tragic figure, the frontiersman, the fiery debater, the latter day Founding Father, the victim of assassination, and more.

Drawing of Abraham Lincoln and son Tad, based ...

Lincoln as father: Drawing with his son Tad

I was discussing this recently with friend and respected presidential historian Alice George.  “Lincoln is an enduring figure,” she pointed out.  “As time goes on, he separates more and more from the rest.   The others seem to have not so vivid a character.”

As Thomas told me in explaining Lincoln’s continuing popularity, “The country always yearns for a leader like Lincoln.”  We want to know him, to understand him.  That emotion continues our growing fascination, fueled by new media, passed down to a new generation, even as it means different things to each of us.

This is what a Lincoln revival feels like.

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