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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    ‘Land’ reveals unexpected Lincoln uproar

    Land reveals unexpected Lincoln uproar

    Andrew Ferguson was puzzled. The long-time journalist had always assumed that of all the safe, dull subjects in America, Abraham Lincoln was the safest and dullest.

    Yet here he was at the grand opening of a Lincoln statue in Richmond, Va., and protesters surrounded him. The statue was an insult to their Southern heritage, they told a bemused Ferguson.

    “”Why not put up a statue of Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero?”” one angry demonstrator declared.

    “”I’m a student of history,”” snaps the leader of the local Confederates, whose top hat clashes with his khaki shirt. “”I know what this man Lincoln did to this country.””

    Ferguson, who hadn’t thought much about Lincoln since his school days, couldn’t understand it.

    “”Who could object to Lincoln?”” he writes. “”He seems too big even to have an opinion about. It would be like objecting to the moon.””

    That comment brings to mind Lester Bangs’s famous remark after Elvis’s death, that Elvis was so big he seemed more like the Pentagon than a real person. So Ferguson set out to figure out – through a combination of reading and road-tripping – why Lincoln still matters, in the unlikeliest of ways.

    “”Land of Lincoln””
    Andrew Ferguson – Atlantic Monthly Press
    4 stars
    $24

    Indeed, in Ferguson’s “”Land of Lincoln,”” a roller-coaster ride through “”contemporary Lincoln Land,”” Honest Abe emerges as a sort of 19th-century Elvis – a great American who grows grander, weirder, more contradictory and more fascinating the more we think about him.

    As Ferguson reveals, the Lincoln impersonator predates the Elvis impersonator.

    “”After six years of living with Abraham Lincoln, I can give him to you any way you want, cold or hot, jazz or classical,”” the director of Lincoln’s presidential library tells Ferguson. “”I can give you scandalous Lincoln, conservative Lincoln, racist Lincoln, Lincoln over easy or Lincoln scrambled.””

    In one hilarious chapter, Ferguson visits a management workshop run by suits who try to teach Lincoln’s “”leadership skills”” to businessmen, oblivious to the fact that the great “”business guru”” himself led a cluttered and disorganized daily existence and had no head for money.

    He learns that some Lincoln collectors collect not merely genuine Lincoln artifacts (his chamber pot, locks of his hair), but sufficiently rare fake onesÿ- to the point where fakes of fakes have made it onto the market.

    At another point, Ferguson finds himself holding the real manuscript of the Gettysburg Addressÿ-ÿonly to find that “”holding the thing, in fact, wasn’t for me quite as moving as actually reading the words that make up the address.””

    Ferguson braces himself for his journey by reading “”Herndon’s Lincoln,”” the biography written by Lincoln’s old law partner, William Herndon, perhaps his closest friend. When Lincoln left for Washington, he told Herndon to leave the sign up, that when he came back “”we’ll go right on practicing law as though nothing has happened.””

    Devastated by Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon, who felt he had known the great man better than anyone, set out to research his past. Ferguson demonstrates that virtually everything we know about Lincoln – from his poor upbringing to the unusual way he had of eating an apple – comes from Herndon’s book, which he calls “”one of the greatest American books of the 19th century.””

    But Ferguson also discovers that most of Herndon’s stories were impossible to verify. This is the great mystery at the center of Ferguson’s amusing travelogue. Everyone thinks they know who Lincoln is – and everyone is wrong, sort of.

    After watching a host of Lincoln impersonators descend on a crowd, spouting things like “”I am certain that you have heard my most famous speech”” Ferguson overhears a small girl ask her mother, “”Are they crazy men?””

    “”No, honey, of course not,”” the mother replies. “”They just want to be Abraham Lincoln.””

    So at last, Lincoln himself eludes Ferguson: “”Even when you thought you had him nailed … he slips away like quicksilver.”” All that he can say for certain that he’s found is a very strange country that can’t get over its greatest hero.

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