Monday, February 16, 2015

Q&A with Richard Wightman Fox

Richard Wightman Fox is the author of the new book Lincoln's Body: A Cultural History. His other books include Jesus in America and Trials of Intimacy. He is a professor of history at the University of Southern California, and he lives in Venice, California.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on Lincoln’s body and his image in your new book? 

A: That’s always a hard question to answer. I was fascinated when I finished my previous book, Jesus in America, that Lincoln was much less interested in Jesus than most of his peers were. He had an inquiring, theological mind and spoke often about providence, but he rarely mentioned Jesus. …When he was assassinated, everyone compared him to Jesus: he gave his body for us….

Many years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book called Lincoln’s Body. It would go back to the three to six weeks after the assassination, investigating how northerners, black and white, addressed the paradox of a guy who didn’t say much about Jesus but was suddenly equated to Jesus although [they were aware] he wasn’t divine.

I went quite some time trying to write a book about April 15 to June 1, [and then with my editor] decided the real story was only starting on June 1. I was more interested in the meaning people were giving to Lincoln’s death and his body.

The need to go further was symbolized by two texts. On June 1, Charles Sumner gave an important [speech saying] the task has just begun, that the important text is the Gettysburg Address, not the Second Inaugural. The Second Inaugural was what people took as his last words. Sumner was saying there’s too much emphasis on the Second Inaugural—“with malice toward none”—and that the fight has just begun to ensure that all Americans, black and white, are made citizens….

The second thing is Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” that came out in October 1865. The great lines kept coming back to me, “I mourn’d and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”…

In his old age he spoke often on Lincoln on the anniversary of his death. We are responsible for keeping alive not just the memory of Lincoln but also the mourning. It will allow us to keep Lincoln alive in our bodies. He got the importance of Lincoln’s body…By dying, [Lincoln] had offered an "eminent" death for the nation.

That launched me on the ultimate quest for the whole chronology.

Then there was the arrival in 2012 of [the Lincoln movie]. Daniel Day-Lewis made the body visible to all of us again, the way northerners and black southerners too, they way the felt the body of Lincoln in every dimension…. 

Q: You describe the different reactions between white Republicans and African-Americans to Lincoln’s death. What were these reactions and did they persist in the years to come? 

A: The basic sweep that I see is white Republicans and northern and southern blacks all showed love for Lincoln. The Democrats in the North did too. The only groups who weren’t part of that were Irish Catholics and a few other groups in the North, and most white southerners. Over the course of the late 19th century they started coming on board….

White Republicans were divided in 1865. The Radical Republicans really were almost happy with the removal of Lincoln, they were so eager to punish the former Confederates, they thought Lincoln was too forgiving. They wrongly imagined Andrew Johnson was going to [engage in] punishing treatment of the traitors.

Black northerners and southerners and white Republicans—they hoped for extending rights to black men. As Lincoln said on April 11, he recommended that black former slaves, men, be given the vote if they were Union veterans or had some education. No president had ever said that before. It’s probably what made John Wilkes Booth decide to attack him on the 14th.

In the late 19th century, white Republicans had more or less subordinated black citizenship questions to the reunion of whites in North and South.

I wanted to let black memories of Lincoln be equal to white memories…black people kept alive [the idea of] Lincoln the Emancipator when white people forgot. It took 100 years for white people to remember what the Radical Republicans and black people were saying in 1865: that African Americans were legally equal to whites. Southern blacks lived through the horror story of making progress toward citizenship during Reconstruction, then seeing that progress reversed.

Then you can see the heroism of [Martin Luther] King’s generation and earlier generations—they kept the idea of Lincoln the liberator alive…. 

Q: You write that during the Vietnam and Watergate period, “Lincoln was bound to languish as a symbol of the nation.” Was this the only time since Lincoln’s death that this languishing happened? 

A: Some historians said that in the late 19th century [it also happened] and they saw the 1909 centenary as a great revival. I’m not sure that’s true. There was certainly a blinding light of enthusiasm about Lincoln in 1909 and leading up to it. In the beginning of the 1900s, there was enthusiasm for what was to come. Especially if we mainstream black memories of Lincoln, in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, there was a continuous remembrance of Lincoln as the true [author] of American ideals—he taught us that all Americans were created equal….

There was a turning away from Lincoln as a great hero in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the Gore Vidal novel Lincoln. [That period] is unique as I see it. It was the biggest downturn—blacks and whites were finding a reason to depart from the Lincoln orbit.

The irony is that King so deftly exploited the memory of Lincoln from 1963-65. Between 1965-68, he took a very different turn. If you argue for equal rights, Lincoln is great, but for equality of condition, you’re leaving Lincoln’s orbit.... 

Q: You describe President Obama’s desire to link himself to Lincoln. What do you think of this comparison? 

A: I feel like the analogy between Lincoln and Obama is very strong, it’s stronger maybe than even Obama gets. …For me the fact is that for Obama and Lincoln, the exciting historical story had just happened the generation before. For Obama, it was the civil rights movement. For Lincoln, it was the founding of the nation.... 

Q: You begin the book by stating, “Dead for a century and a half, Abraham Lincoln remains curiously and uniquely alive to millions of Americans.” What are the main reasons for that? 

A: I was not able to answer that question to my own satisfaction. It’s a fact that Lincoln just—again, with the assassination—rose to a place in our nation’s pantheon beyond any other person.

Even in 1865, many people proposed that now there were two national fathers, Washington and Lincoln, and that Lincoln would eventually outstrip Washington.

Everyone knew Washington would remain a symbol of the nation, but many believed Lincoln would reach a pinnacle all his own: he was the only one who could have performed this impossible balancing act, not pushing too hard for the end of slavery but pushing hard enough for it to come about…

Not only was Lincoln assassinated, but, like Kennedy, he was assassinated and then immediately gone. There was no chance for last words, no way for us to reconcile ourselves to his death. The suddenness of the withdrawal marked people in the first generation, and they passed it on to their kids…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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