Although many Americans boasted of the superiority of their Republican political institutions in the Victorian era, we never escaped the charge that our policies were bought at the price of cultural inferiority. “Americans are a brave, hardworking and astute people,” admitted Sydney Smith, the British clergyman and critic, “but who reads an American book?” Or go to an American piece? Or do you look at an American picture or an American statue? “
That image was not improved in European minds when Americans on the verge of a national civil war inaugurated as their president a joint ungraduate trial lawyer, a serious hillbilly, and a reputation for vulgar storytelling. “Abraham Lincoln,” announced a British Tory MP, was “a railsplitter, bargee and attorney … a well-behaved man, a clever lumberjack” and “an inept excuse”. He was proof (according to then Prime Minister Lord Palmerston) that “putting power in the hands of the masses throws the scum of the community to the surface”.
Much of that contempt, for both Lincoln and 19th century American culture, was cruelly undeserved. The same decades that Victoria and Albert, Smith and Palmerston were amalgamated were also the decades of a new American literature (from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Harriet Beecher Stowe), a new art (from portraiture of the Peales to Frederic Edwin Church) and new music (symphonies by Henry Bristow and William Henry Fry). And alongside these manifestations of high-profile culture, Americans displayed a vibrant bourgeois and indigenous culture “filled with sensationalism, violence, and crazy humor – literature, penny newspapers, music, and popular exhibits full of weird, crazy images that sometimes borders on that.” Surrealistic. “
Nobody was a better chronicler of 19th century American culture than David Reynolds, a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. His 1995 breakout book Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (which won the coveted Bancroft Prize) avoided the kind of literary history in which texts are treated like tapestries, the threads of which have to be laboriously pulled apart. Not only did he list Whitman’s ancestry; he put it in the context of some kind of ancestry in 19th century Brooklyn. His Whitman didn’t just write for newspapers; He entered a dizzying world of moderation speakers, Bowery “b’hoys” (an Irish slang term for rude working-class men), mystery novels in dark alleys and political oratorio. “In the carnivalized atmosphere of antebellum America, rigid cultural hierarchies did not exist,” wrote Reynolds, and Whitman advocated “a fluid exchange between … Shakespeare’s plays” and “minstrels, farces, songs and so on.” I’m tall, said Whitman, I’ve got a lot, and so is Reynolds.
In Abe: Abraham Lincoln In His Time (New York: Penguin Press, $ 45), Reynolds embarks on a similar project to reinvent the sixteenth president. Its 1008-page revision begins with the dullness of the title – Abe – since no one ever dared to refer to him as “Abe” after Lincoln reached adulthood. To his closest friends, he was always Lincoln; even to his wife he was Mr. Lincoln. All of his correspondence was signed by A. Lincoln, as if he found himself overly familiar with Abraham. Only on his most important government papers did he write his full name down. But for the whole country he was actually Abe – Uncle Abe, old Abe, honest Abe, Abe Lincoln of Illinois. Good Lord, you will tremble with me, Uncle Abe, was the cry of an astonished soldier whom Lincoln held out his hand during an examination. “Hello! Uncle Abe, are you kidding?” Was the satirical title of an 1864 political song.
This was in part a reaction to the way he was perceived – the homely prankster, the most common self-made American, the approachable statesman who had malice to no one, charity for all. There was no better name for this Lincoln than Abe. But it was also an image that helped Lincoln become confused. Lincoln was born on the border, with no special training, with a more careless, homely looks, and a squeaky border-state accent that (to Julia Ward Howe’s horror) became a heerd. He saw himself very clearly, as others would likely see him – and mock him. And so he made her mock, led her to underestimate him, and lured her into complacency and arrogance with what Reynolds calls his “uncle Abe person” and his Barnumesque act “ugly man” (171, 512) . Those who were deceived in this way were instantly outwitted, pondered, and out-maneuvered. “Any man,” said his old attorney friend Leonard Swett, “who thought Lincoln was a simple man, would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”
Reynolds’ complaint about the Lincoln biography in general is that too much assumes that politics and political ideas were his only life. This politicized Lincoln isn’t entirely wrong: after all, his quarter-century legal partner, William Henry Herndon, insisted that “politics is his heaven and his Hades metaphysics.” But Herndon was not entirely right either, and Reynolds’ great service in the vast, alluvial landscape of Abe is the cultural environments in which Lincoln lived, the cultural artifacts he manipulated, and the cultural markings he appropriated for his purposes , to open.
Reynolds’ Lincoln arises as an amalgam of two cultures – the cavalier, descended from 17th century royalist masters, and the Puritan, whose lineage was rooted in their psalm-sang Cromwellian opponents – that haunted antebellum literature. He inherited (or believed he did) the Cavalier from a Virginia “nobleman” who fathered his illegitimate mother, and at its lowest level, the Cavalier culture was the milieu in which he lived in Kentucky and Indiana, a culture of honor fights, drunkenness, big stories, and the occasional violence. The Puritan Lincoln grew out of a different ground – his father’s Calvinism, an abhorrence of slavery, and a thirst for self-transformation that spanned Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence alike. As president he was a theatrical habit and exchanged professional Shakespeare criticism with foreign visitors; But he also loved clown joke books and compared his political tactics to a circus (Charles Blondin’s tightrope crossings over Niagara Falls). Like Whitman, Lincoln was great, it contained a multitude.
Abe is not a conventional Lincoln biography: Lincoln’s 20 years in New Salem, Illinois are summarized in a single paragraph. The election of 1864 comes without any specific explanation, including the results of the vote. And there are moments when Reynolds’ lengthy arguments about the making of Santa Claus as a Christmas icon or the strategic recommendations of Anna Ella Carroll, a wealthy Maryland pamphlet writer, threaten to make Abe more of a Civil War cultural story than Lincoln. But Reynolds found a seriously overlooked gold vein in understanding Lincoln’s embrace of natural law, and when Reynolds turned his attention to Lincoln as a speaker, he analyzed Lincoln’s “thrift in style” at Gettysburg and the elegant balance of the second inauguration is peerless in the Lincoln literature.
The Lincoln biography struggled with mounting cynicism, much of it related to Lincoln’s race record and much of it came from a mixed chorus of progressives and libertarians. Reynolds vigorously pushes back against this criticism. Against the late Lerone Bennett, longtime editor of Ebony Magazine and author of the militantly anti-Lincoln manifesto Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (2000), Reynolds denies the charges of undercover white supremacy. Against Richard Hofstadter, he insists that Lincoln’s declaration of emancipation made him “a demigod among blacks”, while his proposals for black colonization were in fact “a delaying tactic” to protect emancipation.
Still, it’s not certain whether Reynolds can convince progressives or libertarians that Lincoln deserves their respect, if only because modern terms such as progressive or conservative, let alone libertarian, do not readily adapt to the forms of 19th century politics . As much as Reynolds longs to paint Lincoln in current progressive colors, Lincoln’s idea of progress was closer to John Stuart Mill than modern liberals like John Rawls. Reynolds would like to believe that Lincoln favored a “high-spending government for activists,” but most of Lincoln’s “big spending” was on the war and, even then, never exceeded 1.8% of real GDP. That, too, did not last long: As historian Mark Neely wrote in Lincoln and in the Triumph of the Nation a decade ago, “the minimal strengthening of executive power in the Civil War had no lasting effect.”
What Reynolds did wonderfully nonetheless, is to fill a huge, unstained room around Lincoln that filled him with the carnival, the spectacle and the sound of American culture in a time of slavery and freedom, the cavaliers and puritans, the poets and B. ‘hoys surrounds. Sydney Smith and Lord Palmerston should have looked more closely; Perhaps they found this culture and Abraham Lincoln more interesting than Victoria and Albert.