Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America

April 30, 2009

This is the second volume of Barry Schwartz's study of how Americans' memory of their greatest president continually transforms. The first volume, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (2000), staked out the sociological terms of "collective memory" and "keying" and brought us from Lincoln's assassination at the close of the Civil War in 1865 through to the 1920s, when Lincoln replaced George Washington as the American Historical Idol. In Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America, Schwartz completes the journey to the cusp of this bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, but unfortunately, as it would certainly challenge his "post-heroic" thesis, falls just short of the era of our new American Idol, Barack Obama. (One hopes that Schwartz, emeritus professor at the University of Georgia, will consider a study keying Obama and Lincoln.)

Even the briefest introduction to Lincoln's life promotes our awe, but no hero ever gets a free pass. Schwartz is fascinated by how, in death, heroes are transformed into an image of themselves that says more about the transformers and receivers of that image than about the hero. "Throughout the Thirties and beyond, Carl Sandburg set the tone of popular Lincoln biography, and neither he nor the Lincoln scholars of the day had anything new to say about Lincoln's racial views. Lincoln's emerging role as symbol of racial justice was based on new values, not new facts." Schwartz demonstrates engagingly and convincingly how Lincoln is a historical phenomenon who can weather misunderstanding, misrepresentation, mockery, caricature and popular cultural exploitation and still maintain something of his real integrity.

We can find evidence of historical "memory" not only in books, periodicals, commemorative events and memorials, Schwartz argues, but in the minds of ordinary people. While he does not investigate the neurology and chemical processes of memory, he gleans the common understanding of memory stirred up and revealed by survey questions. To his regret, we live in a post-heroic age: "Great men have not been universally dismissed, but for most people the prevailing attitude is one of dispassionate respect. Whatever the founders and preservers did is simply less relevant now than before, and there is no replacing them with better leaders, for there is nothing anyone can do to distinguish himself in the eyes of a generation that no longer recognizes greatness."

To Schwartz's further regret, Lincoln is less often remembered as the man who saved the Union than as the man who carried on the Civil War to end slavery. He did, of course, effectively end slavery, but that was not his primary goal, a fact Schwartz shows has almost disappeared from American collective memory: "To assert that Lincoln shifted his war goal from saving the Union to emancipating the slaves simplifies his motivation and reduces his presidency's significance, but it bears on the racial issues and historical exaggerations of our day."

The author's academic rigour shows in the earnest presentation of the evidence. Schwartz's interest in the history is at least as real as his stake in the sociology, and, while his admiration for Lincoln is never mentioned but always present, his disdain for multiculturalism and postmodernism occasionally overwhelms his academic dispassion: "Postmodern explanations fail to explain why the privileged strata admiring Lincoln the most include a 'postmodern class' whose appreciation of great men is supposedly precarious."

Schwartz's readers should include anyone interested in American history and any sociologists interested in the phenomenon of reputation. This volume is comprehensible on its own, but details here and there may nag at you if you don't read its predecessor first.

Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America

By Barry Schwartz. Chicago University Press. 410pp, £20.50. ISBN 9780226741888. Published 20 January 2009

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