Abraham Lincoln In The Post-Heroic Era: History And Memory In Late Twentieth-Century America, by Barry Schwartz
There is a lot to admire about this book. It is likely that very few people will like this book, given the author’s stilted prose style and his desire to support his views through the adoption, where possible, of a quantitative approach to measuring Lincoln’s absolute and relative prestige over the last few decades in support his argument that the decline of Lincoln’s prestige is inevitable and irreversible as a result of social changes. Even so, there is much that is admirable about the author’s approach as a reader who is very familiar with the large body of works concerning Abraham Lincoln, some of which are mentioned by the author as evidence of one sort of school of thought or another . If I find fault with the author, and I do, the fault I find is not in his detailed analysis of the course of Abraham Lincoln’s reputation up to the present, but rather in his lack of ability to think of possibilities, and in the way the author assumes that the trends of the recent past will continue along the same course indefinitely. This is a common fallacy, to be sure, but one that notably harms this work because it reduces to nothing the prescriptive value of this book and limits its worth to its descriptive value in explaining the recent past.
This book is about 250 pages of content or so divided into several chapters. After a preface and acknowledgement and reasonably long introduction, where the author places this book as a sequel to a previous book about the rise of Lincoln’s prestige from the late 19th to the early 20th century, the author looks at various periods and how Lincoln’s prestige fared in terms of critical and popular view: ascension, on Lincoln in the Great Depression, apex, on Lincoln in World War II, transition, on Lincoln during the beginning part of the Cold War, transfiguration, on how views of Lincoln changed during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, erosion, the fading prestige and benign ridicule of Lincoln during the 70’s and 80’s, the so-called post-heroic era, or views of Lincoln that are increasingly superficial and ironic, and inertia, looking at the enduring Lincoln. The author makes reference to a wide variety of works and there are a lot of appendices that help the reader make sense of the author’s methodology.
There is a lot to appreciate about this book, even where one finds fault. For example, the author’s discussion of works gives a broad context to the author’s judgment of how Lincoln has been viewed at various times. Likewise, the author gives a good justification for his statistical methodology and provides a worthwhile explanation of it. In addition to this, the author provides a multi-faceted view of Abraham Lincoln and demonstrates how most views of Lincoln are somewhat oversimplified by focusing on only one or a few of these facets, such as Lincoln as savior of the Union, Lincoln as Great Emancipator, Lincoln as self-made man, and so on. The main fault of this book is that the author views the decline of Lincoln’s prestige in our present age of irony and cynicism as permanent. The author does not see a future age of heroism in which Lincoln’s greatness will be seen in its proper context, but rather sees our own corrosive anti-heroism as continuing and deepening over time. It is for this facile and misguided view of historical inevitability that this book is to be faulted, and that error along with the turgid nature of the author’s style are the main errors to be found here, unless the author can be faulted for his interest in the tawdry and superficial nature of a great deal of contemporary portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as well.
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