on May 6, 2007
The above title could have come from a the mind of a "meatball" at one of those corporate workshops Andrew Ferguson so abhors! I recently read his first book, "Fools Names, Fools Faces," and, whereas the essays in that book could be very cutting, "Land of Lincoln," is just as funny, but much more reflective. Ferguson runs into a wide array of characters on his cross-country Lincoln quest, but he never takes a cheap shot at them for comedic effect. His humor is more nuanced, and, therefore, much more genuine. I especially enjoyed the parts where he described his interaction with his teen-aged children as he attempted to persuade them to spend part of their summer vacation traversing the "Lincoln Heritage Trail." This part, of course, was hilarious, but it pointed to a more serious concern shared by all parents who love history: will our children marinating in this media-saturated entertainment culture ever appreciate history like we do? I have been looking forward to purchasing this book for two years, ever since I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Ferguson at a gathering in Washington DC. He was very cordial to me, and, when he found out I lived in Saginaw, Michigan, he retrieved an article from his office for me about Dr. Mudd of the Lincoln Assassination conspiracy. You see, Dr. Mudd's grandson lived in Saginaw and he spent most of his long life trying to gain a pardon for Dr. Mudd. I must also mention that the quality of Mr. Ferguson's writing is always excellent. In summary, I would recommend this fine book to all who love history from a unique perspective, presented in a well-written, most entertaining fashion!
on May 10, 2007
Andrew Ferguson is a great writer with a subtle sense of humor. In Land of Lincoln, Ferguson, a self-described "buff" of Abraham Lincoln, checks in on how Lincoln is faring in modern America with asides on how he has fared in the past. The book is alternatively funny and sad: "Lincoln" is certainly firmly rooted in American history and culture, but who exactly is this "Lincoln" is indeterminate -- often a product of the needs of people rather than a free standing figure.
The first part of the book is Ferguson traveling to various Lincoln sites solo -- e.g., Richmond, Chicago, and Springfield Illinois. The second part is a forced family journey to sites involving Lincoln in Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana as Ferguson tries to recreate the family journey he took as a child.
The book is very well done with funny moments (the anti-Lincoln convention and the Lincoln reenactors convention are great examples) and sad and melancholy discussions (the new disneyfied Lincoln experience in Springfield and the transformation of Lincoln in the Chicago Historical Society). Through it all Ferguson is a a shrewd and understated observed who allows his interviewees to state their cases with little or no comment by Ferguson.
Ferguson is clearly a well-educated on the topic of Lincoln and Lincoln Historiography and the book cleary is a labor of love.
I'd recommend the book for "serious" and casual Lincoln buffs as well as non-buffs looking for an entertaining, funny, and insightful read.
I'm probably one of the biggest Abe Lincoln fans this side of the Mississippi, the west side, that is. Ever since I got bitten by the Abe bug in fifth grade (that horrendous Gettysburg paper diorama still comes to mind), the sixteenth president has haunted me and stayed with me through thick and thin. My interest, more than a mere dabbling, is proven by a range of Lincoln books that grace the downstairs bookshelf, one of the newest being Goodwin's marvelous yarn Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Suffice it to say, that most of my Lincoln books offer a favorable look at the grisly old man, savior of our nation, and that's what I prefer. When another book pops up on the surface, needless-to-say, I consider buying it to add to the library. So it was with great flourish, and immediacy, that I just found Andrew Ferguson's new Lincoln book Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America and within minutes, was standing in line purchasing it. Two hours later, and I've read it. And what a joy this book is!
Andrew Ferguson's take on Abe is a quest for the truth of Lincoln, not a mythologized superhero, sent by the Heavens to wash the scourge of slavery from the continent, but a real life man, flaws and all. Ferguson goes to the "Lincoln" places in America, to investigate how he has or is being portrayed by the various locations: both positive and negative.
Ferguson starts off his book dealing with a controversy I had barely heard about, but seem to remember: the placement of a Lincoln statue in Richmond, VA. Ferguson doesn't shy away from the controversy, but goes to live in it and what's more, understand it. He talks with the men who, with thinly veiled, inferred racist beliefs, wish to paint Lincoln as a warmongering industrialist, whose only goal was to ride roughshod over the defenseless, agrarian South. Attending both a pro and anti-Lincoln conference, Ferguson decries both as unreal, and charts the goal for the rest of his book: to unearth, uncover the real Lincoln.
Ferguson's writing style is both information and brisk. He is honest in his love for Lincoln, and how he lost it, and began to recover it through this book. Sometimes, in reading books like this, the story becomes more about the author and less about the subject matter. No worries. Ferguson steps out of the way at times and let's the story shine through.
And what a story he tells. This is a wonderful book for any weekend historian, Lincoln enthusiast, or someone itching to get into our country's history a little bit more. If you liked Assassination Vacation or Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, you'll adore this book. Does Ferguson achieve his goal: yes, in his own way. The Lincoln he unearths is real, bawdy, human, and alive. He also drives home a new point: the Lincoln each of us loves is the Lincoln we all see in ourselves.
Using Mr. Lincoln as a common thread, a fun journey of discovery of modern day America through the lens of a traditional father -- albeit a wittily sardonic one. Mr. Ferguson is an accomplished writer with a firm grasp of the facts of Mr. Lincoln's life and a clear eye to the various hucksters--and the occasional simply good-hearted Lincoln buffs--that continue, in one way or another, to thrive off our country's enigmatic 16th president.
While the author's telling thoughts on such diverse topics as conventions of impersonators; business leadership workshops; family vacations; urban planning; the National Park Service; and museum displays are not the fodder for traditional presidential histories, this is a book well worth reading. At its core, it is a heartfelt appreciation for a great man.
Andrew Ferguson is the kind of writer I delight in reading. He makes his points clearly without having to hit you over the head with them. His writing has a light style that is full of wonderful detail and a nice portion of humor. Even when he is making serious points he is able to pull it off without becoming ponderous or somber. Sure, he probably uses the word meatball too often, and he has the easy disdain for business types that is worn proudly by those who never had to scramble in the marketplace to pay the rent. But these smudges are all far outweighed by the many delights he provides.
It is hard to write a fresh book about Lincoln, but Ferguson has pulled it off with an approach to the subject I had not see before. It is very much about how Lincoln lives in so many different ways within us. You can easily fill a library with the books written about him, and as Ferguson demonstrates so ably, they all argue about who Lincoln was as a man, what his beliefs were, and even his true origins. While some biographical aspects of Lincoln's life are covered in the book, it is usually to show the contradictions in understanding people hold about them.
Really, this is a book about us. Just as your thoughts about Shakespeare or Turner say a lot less about them than it says about you, how we regard Lincoln says everything about us and reveals little about him. Ferguson tours the country and meets all kinds of people with a wider range of views than I had even suspected existed and then takes his family on a reverse tour of the Lincoln's life from Illinois through Indiana (Indiana?) to Kentucky and ends up at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. (where else could one end such a book?). Well, technically, there is a very moving postscript that takes place at the Springfield Hilton, but I will let you be moved by that on your own. To talk any more about it would require a spoiler alert.
The book begins with the public battle over a recent statue commemorating the visit of conquered Richmond, Virginia by Lincoln with his son, Tad. The statue, while ostensibly a historical and public good, had its origins in a commercial enterprise that wants to sell miniatures of the statue. What makes the whole think noteworthy is that the reaction against the statue isn't against the commercialization of one of our greatest presidents, but against Lincoln himself!
I remember when I met my first Lincoln hater way back in 1972. For this young man the war between the states (or whatever one wants to call it) was not over and he had all kinds of reasons why what the North did to the South was criminal, unjust, and should still be rectified. Ferguson heads out to meet a group of folks who think this way and who are centered around one Thomas DiLorenzo and his book "The Real Lincoln"
We are then taken into the morass of finding out who the real Lincoln was and what all the writings about him are based on. Much of it rests on the work done by Lincoln's law partner, Billy Herndon and the materials he collected after Lincoln was assassinated. We then get a tour of historical sites and how the change in historical values has actually changed the way history is presented and regarded. Ferguson never says so directly, but if you still regard the old values as important, it is easy to be horrified at the newly sterilized multimedia knowledge free content being used to sell nostalgia in place of history.
We also enter the world of Lincoln memorabilia and historical artifacts. The issues of what is real, what is fake, and what is kitsch are all very real and in many ways it doesn't matter to someone holding their Lincoln icon. Just beware, there is a lot of fake hair on the market.
One of my three favorite stories in the book is the immigrant couple who credit the success of their restaurant to Lincoln. They saw the slogan "Land of Lincoln", visited his tomb, and turned him into a deity. They pray to him, have an icon of him in their restaurant, and actually except for the prayer part, have more solid values about Lincoln than most of the curators at the various historical sites. When you read about the delight on the scholarly debunkers, well your blood will likely boil.
The world of "Lincoln Presenters" (think of the tribute Elvis trade) is explored by attending their annual convention. It is a fascinating aspect of this whole story and it is easy to like these guys (and gals who play Mary) while still being a bit troubled by the idea of people traveling around, living in their cars, to try and make a few bucks pretending to be a man whose memory they obviously love so much.
The whole family trip is great and it is wonderful how Ferguson compares what he learned from the trip when his family took the ride along the Lincoln trail when he was a boy, what he learned about the origins of the trail (the Petroleum Industry) and sharing what is left of it with his kids today. All fascinating.
And I think the way he shows us the power of the Lincoln Memorial, its critics, and what it can still mean to us is very very good. The postcript is about as powerful a few pages as you will likely read this year.
This is a very thoughtful book. It is surprisingly entertaining and funny, but has a rich payoff. So, get it, read it, and think about what Lincoln means to all of us, but particularly to you.
on June 12, 2007
Andrew Ferguson's "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America" chronicled his journey to learn more about the things that Abraham Lincoln represent and the people who are obsessed with all things Lincoln as well as the Lincoln haters. Ferguson started his journey in Richmond, VA where the state government decided to erect a Lincoln statue and was met with a huge resistance. The author also attended a conference to debate about the inaccuracy of the country's history as the attendees believed that Lincoln was not necessary against anti-slavery as the textbooks claimed. On the other end of the spectrum, Ferguson introduced the Abe buffs who were obsessed with Lincoln and became collectors of Lincoln's things. The most fascinating part of the book for me was the gathering of all the Lincoln impersonators. A few hundred of these men, with the appropriate hat and beard impersonate Lincoln for parades, museums, and other occasions.
This was such a fascinating read for me. It was fun to learn about what people think of Lincoln, and how Lincoln was being portrayed by people who love and hated him. The writing was witty, conversational, engaging and not to forget, very educational. Ferguson provided bits and pieces of Civil War facts and Lincoln's life which was helpful in understanding one of the most famous U.S. presidents. It was also interesting for me when Ferguson wrote about the different memorials and statues commemorating Lincoln and the way in which original sculptors and designers envisioned Lincoln. "Land of Lincoln" would definitely appeal to both history and non-history buffs. Highly recommended!
on June 12, 2007
The best way to describe this book is to say that if Mark Twain came back today and did a domestic version of "Innocents Abroad" with a focus on Abe Lincoln sites and people, this would be the result. Witty, incisive, personal, moving in the extreme at times, and utterly hilarious, this is the kind of book that you will read passages of out loud to whoever's in the room as you are demanded to when you laugh out loud so heartily at their fun. The book is ultimately about people--from the Lincoln revisionists to the obsessive collectors who, for some reason, have focused on Abe instead of Coke bottles or Tupperware or Star Wars memorabiliia...except of course that this IS about Lincoln, and thus there's a "gravitas" above and beyond the silly pop-cultural sleazyness exposed. Even if you have ZERO interest in Lincoln or the Civil War or history, you'll find this book fun and interesting because of how it exposes contemporary foibles, but if you're a "buff" yourself, this mirror will give you even more joy. It is secondarily a fun look at the concept of tourism in the age of Disney-fied history and of the meaning...or lack of it...in material things. But don't take all this to imply it is in any way stuffy or ponderous--it's not. Its just plain FUNNY and FUN!
Andrew Ferguson was fascinated with Lincoln forty years ago in his youth. He remembers well the family pilgramages to Springield and New Salem, Illinois to follow - if not wallow - in the footsteps of one of the most celebrated Americans of all time. Ferguson is older now and still fascinated with Lincoln. He wonders how other people see Lincoln and thus begins his quest: discovering Lincoln among the people.
This is a beautiful book, with much in common with the self-revelatory work of Bill Bryson. Don't look for a story here: there really isn't one. It's a meandering as Ferguson tries to find Lincoln amongst the people today. He begins with a visit to a convention of Lincoln "haters" and "debunkers". People who claim that Lincoln violated the Constitution and pursued an illegal war. Ironically the convention is in Richmond VA, the capital of the Confederacy, which Lincoln briefly visited. Ferguson's narrative is always light, even as he deals with weighty issues. He's really got a nice style. The weighty issues here is the portrayal of Lincoln by what amount to anti-Lincoln writers and scholars.
Ferguson uses this a way to move the discussion to the portrayal of Lincoln in print. More than 14,000 books have so far been written about Lincoln, trying to paint Lincoln as "their" man. None of these books capture the real Lincoln says Ferguson because the real Lincoln is unknowable. And with that we're into a discussion of the penultimate biographer of Lincoln, his friend and partner of many years, Billy Herndon. The transition is slick.
And so it goes, chapter after entertaining chapter. Ferguson spends a good deal of time recounting Lincoln's destiny in Springfield, where he lived and practiced law, raised children and plotted his political future. It is, of course, ludicrous today to think of a small town lawyer aiming for the White House. But in Lincoln's time, it was doable - and Lincoln did it. But what of Lincoln since the evening he was shot? Well, for a long time, Lincoln didn't fare well in Springfield and Ferguson tells us the story. His fortunes turned up when a woman decided that Springfield needed a Lincoln center and museum. $150 million and years later, the museum is up and running, but Ferguson wonders if Lincoln wasn't lost along the way. Ferguson's critique of many academics and professional Lincoln scholars here and elsewhere throughout the book is wonderfully scathing.
Ferguson dips and dives: a convention of Lincoln presenters, people who dress up more or less like Lincoln; interviews with Lincoln collectors. But the real thrust is Ferguson planning a family vacation just like the one he went on more than 40 years ago. With wife and 13 and 11 year old son and daughter, Ferguson embarks on a Lincoln tour starting in Springfield and working his way back to his birthplace. His comments are trenchant. The National Park Service is taken to task. Academics and professors are particular (and worthy) targets. The children are a sarcastic duo as they move along. But Ferguson takes us along a tour that all of us might enjoy. (Some parts of it, though, are already inaccessible.)
Overall this is a wonderfully endearing book. I suspect that the reader should have at least some past or present interest in Lincoln, but maybe not. There's more than a modicum of charm at work here. Ferguson is a humorous writer; not laugh out loud funny, buy sly, wry. Ferguson is also a sentimentalist. He misses, as do I, the time when children were actually taught about Lincoln, when people appreciated Lincoln. Hopefully his book will help people not only remember that time, but perhaps lead more people to appreciate the incredibly unique man that Mr. Lincoln was and truly remains.
on August 11, 2011
If Lincoln could have transported himself to present-day America, I wonder what he'd think of all the fuss? No one knows but Andrew Ferguson's book surely shows that plenty of scholars, publicists, Lincoln buffs and haters are more than willing to give it a shot. The conservative author can't help but inject snarky, funny remarks about practically every facet of the people who inhabit the Lincoln universe. From his amusing family trip through Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky in an attempt to retrace Lincoln's life; to interviewing memorabilia collectors, impersonators... excuse me... "reenactors"; visiting a bevy of memorials and enduring a business workshop that uses the 16th President as the template to empower middle managers in corporate America; you'll never find a dull moment between these pages. I didn't realize the extent that Lincoln permeated our country's commercial and cultural identity. This was very much an eye-opener. The book is an educational, fun read much in the vein of a Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) work. Mr. Ferguson has written a great, entertaining book.
on July 18, 2007
This is a journalistic report on Lincoln's current status in the popular culture. He examines old and new Lincoln statuary, Lincoln's haters and tepid defenders (e.g. Mr. Holzer, the author of the huffy review above), and Lincoln museums and private collections.
This is a generally, but not uniformily, interesting book. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Herndon, the Ferguson family's vacation on the Lincoln Heritage Trail (backwards from Illinois to Indiana to Kentucky), and the touching postscript about the dying Czech visitor to Springfield. Less interesting were the chapters on Lincoln impersonators and workshops.
Ferguson is a fine writer and perceptive observer of the passing scene. This book is less about Lincoln himself, than today's society--political correctness, historical illiteracy and neglect, and the general dumbing down of our heritage.