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Disputations: The Lost Lincoln

Click here to read responses by Michael Kazin, John Stauffer, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Click here to read Sean Wilentz's response to his critics.

There is usually room for differences of emphasis and evaluation but, Sean Wilentz’s reductiveness ("Who Lincoln Was," July 15, 2009) reveals a philistine approach so distant from the literary that he actually sneers at “English professors” as interlopers who apparently cannot have anything of interest to contribute to the discussion. Political history is not the only way to approach historical figures. This is utilitarian narrowness at its worst and would in turn imply that David Donald should not have written his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Thomas Wolfe, and so on. Wilentz actually asks, “But what difference did all that reading actually make to Lincoln?” implying that he would have been Lincoln anyway had he not immersed himself in the Bible, Shakespeare, Byron, Burns, etc. In my own case, I would venture that had I not, I would be someone else. And if Wilentz had, he would have written a substantially different essay-review, one less blind or hostile to the richness of human personality and the historical experience.

Wilentz’s antagonism to the claim that the literary and the political Lincoln are inseparable reflects an anachronistic and futile attempt to assert the political historian’s preeminence. That genie, though, is out of the bottle, and as a consequence we now have a deeper, richer understanding of Lincoln. But Wilentz also has a contemporary political agenda. At the end he makes explicit what it is: to trash those who care “about politics only so as to demote it and repudiate it and transcend it,” particularly Obama enthusiasts whose “hallucinations make it difficult for historians to keep the intricacies of political history front and center, or to acknowledge Lincoln’s peculiar gifts as a political leader and a political president. ... those intricacies and those gifts need to be salvaged from the mythologizing and aestheticizing glorifications, from populist fantasies born of forty years of liberal frustration.” Somehow Wilentz misses that the books he’s reviewing are about Lincoln, not exemplifications of his own projection of dangerous trends in current American politics. As an Obama supporter (though I supported Clinton in the primaries), I must be suffering from aesthetic and transcendental hallucinations. Consequently I and my ilk are dangerous and must be corrected. I’m actually not of that ilk (nor is my book), but I would sympathize with those who are when the voice of correction speaks with such arrogance and such chastising certainty.

Fred Kaplan is the author of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Harper).

Click here to read responses by Michael Kazin, John Stauffer, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Click here to read Sean Wilentz's response to his critics.