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The Struggle for Lincoln's Soul Part 1

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Lincoln in American Memory

By Merrill D. Peterson

Oxford University Press

482 pp.; $30

The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

By Michael Burlingame

University of Illinois Press

380 pp.; $29.95

The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

By Philip Shaw Paludan

University Press of Kansas

384 pp.; $29.95

Lincoln has been portrayed both as a devout Christian and as a discreet infidel. The truth is more complicated than these alternatives allow.

What was Abraham Lincoln's religion? What was the connection between Lincoln's private life, including his religion, and his influence on American history? Why should such historical questions matter?

These are straightforward queries, but pursuing them leads immediately into dense thickets. They are thickets growing from the intense concern that has been lavished upon the details of Abraham Lincoln's life. The 130 years since the assassination of the sixteenth president of the United States have witnessed prodigious quantities of publication-much, much more in Lincoln's case, for example, than for George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, the two early presidents with whom Lincoln is most often compared. For nearly a century after his death, the business of recording reminiscences from those who knew Lincoln personally-or who knew those who knew him, and so on to the fifth and sixth degrees-roared along with tremendous energy. Almost as soon as the work of recovering personal reminiscences began, however, so also did the laborious trouble of sorting the reliable witnesses from the unreliable. Now even those who knew those who knew Lincoln are almost all gone. But battles over Lincoln still rage, and almost as acrimoniously as when eyewitnesses were alive.

Substantial industries have grown from the veneration of Lincoln. (In the deep South, a contrasting industry-feeding off hatred of Lincoln as a coarse, despotic, and godless conspirator against liberty, community, and true republicanism-flourished with considerable vigor into the 1930s and is not quite dead today.) In 1950, at least 500 persons were making their living from studying Lincoln, collecting Lincolniana, publishing Lincoln books, and tending Lincoln shrines. That number has grown severalfold in the years since. The Association of Lincoln Presenters (tall, angular, bearded impersonators who try to speak with Lincoln's high, nasal tones) numbers more than one hundred certified members. Serious Lincoln exhibits, libraries, or collections flourish today in, among other places, Springfield and Chicago, Illinois; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Hodgenville, Kentucky; Providence, Rhode Island; Redlands, California; Washington, D.C.; and, of course, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Throughout the twentieth century, world leaders (and millions of ordinary tourists from home and abroad) have pilgrimaged to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (dedicated on Memorial Day, 1922). Many have also made the trek to Springfield and the nearby reconstruction of New Salem village, which thrives today as it never did when Lincoln lived there from 1831 to 1837.

Lincoln's name has been exploited in a stunning variety of ways-the car, a highway, Lincoln Logs, the names of many towns and counties, countless banks and insurance companies (working connotations of "Honest Abe" for all they are worth), as well as the penny, the five-dollar bill, and Presidents' Day. In 1989, New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo assembled a 400-page primer on democracy drawn from Lincoln's writings and speeches. It was published simultaneously in Poland and the United States; both editions achieved instant success.

This ocean of interest in Lincoln is by itself the best evidence for how deeply his life touches on captivating themes of America's history. But it also creates a situation where one must wonder if anything new can still be said about the martyred president. Yet precisely because there are both vast quantities of sources and a welter of legends, informative, fresh books do, in fact, continue to appear.

Merrill Peterson, a biographer of Jefferson and emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, offers in Lincoln in American Memory a fascinating overview of how Lincoln came to be such a compelling cultural icon. Peterson's book is the source for much of the information provided above. It puts industriously wide-ranging research to good use in explaining American (and international) fascination with the sixteenth president. Peterson's conclusion, resting on 50 densely packed pages of notes, is that America's enduring preoccupation with Lincoln depends upon a powerful combination of factors: his rise from obscure poverty to national greatness; the paradoxes of a character, marked by melancholy and humor, that Carl Sandburg once called "hard as a rock and soft as drifting fog"; the widespread belief that Lincoln embodied the finest aspects of the democratic ideal; and, finally, the fact that Lincoln's greatness lay, in Peterson's words, "at the very core of that huge ganglion of American history, the Civil War."

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