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Review: Lincoln’s Body

Back in the 1990s when I was a starving graduate student, I had the good fortune to spend some time with Professor Merrill Peterson who was recently retired from the University of Virginia. I was working on a seminar paper on American historiography and had chosen Peterson’s work as the subject. I chose him because one of his books had played a significant role in my decision to become a professional historian – The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1987). As I explored Peterson’s published works, I became a bigger and bigger devotee. Among the many wonderful books he authored were two that examined how individuals were remembered in American culture: The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960) and Lincoln in American Memory (1994). Though the two were written more than thirty years apart, they quickly secured a hold on imagination and nearly derailed my project because I could not put them away. I was transfixed by Peterson’s study of how America used and abused the reputations of Jefferson and Lincoln. Over and over I read these words:

“The public remembrance of the past, as differentiated from the historical scholars’, is concerned less with establishing its truth than with appropriating it for the present. It relies on written records, but it draws as well upon oral tradition and personal reminiscence, upon stories endlessly repeated, and upon the meanings conveyed by pictorial images, patriotic rituals and sanctified sites. While heightening consciousness of the nation’s heritage, it restages the past and manipulates it for ongoing public purposes. History, as a critical science, is only a later phase of the enterprise (Peterson, Lincoln 35).”

All of this came back to me as I read Richard Wightman Fox’s newest work, Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History. At first I wondered if this was essentially Fox’s update of the Peterson examination down to today. But just as the...

Source: Emerging Civil War

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