If I ever meet an editorial writer who’s capable of discussing sectionalism in modern American politics without invoking the Civil War, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Category Archives: History and Memory
Check out the latest post in Gordon Belt’s series on the memory of John Sevier, in which he examines the work of James R. Gilmore, the nineteenth-century writer who did for Sevier what Parson Weems did for George Washington.
At long last, we arrive at the most pressing issue yet regarding Spielberg’s Lincoln: Is there too much cussin’ in it?
The Hollywood Reporter asked David Barton for his take:
“The historical record is clear that Lincoln definitely did not tolerate profanity around him,” Barton says. “There are records of him confronting military generals if he heard about them cursing. Furthermore, the F-word used by [W.N.] Bilbo was virtually nonexistent in that day and it definitely would not have been used around Lincoln. If Lincoln had heard it, it is certain that he would instantly have delivered a severe rebuke.”
Barton is overstating his case, as he often does. Lincoln didn’t make a habit of swearing, but he did break out the curse words occasionally, especially when his temper got the better of him. Check out Chapter Seven in Michael Burlingame’s The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, which discusses some of these episodes. And as we’ve noted before, he wasn’t above telling an off-color joke.
What about those records of Lincoln confronting generals who cursed? Barton doesn’t specify which records he’s talking about, but in an article at his organization’s website he says Lincoln “personally confronted one of his own generals when he learned of his profanity and then urged the general to use his authority to combat that vice.” His source is Arthur Brooks Lapsley’s The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, which briefly mentions the incident without naming any names or providing specific details. Off the top of my head, I don’t know what incident this is. In any case, I don’t really think we can use this story to draw any broad conclusions about Lincoln’s level of toleration for profanity. It wouldn’t be unusual for a commander-in-chief to rebuke an officer who used vulgar language in his presence in the nineteenth century.
As for the f-word being “virtually nonexistent” during the Civil War, while the term wasn’t as common or endowed with so many varied meanings as it is now, it wasn’t unknown. It was rare to see the f-word in print, of course, although even during the Victorian era it appeared in pornographic stories.
Barton notes that officers and enlisted men in the Union forces were subject to courts-martial for using profanity, and that’s certainly true. Yet to judge by their own accounts, soldiers in that war—like soldiers in other times and places—swore profusely. “There is so much swearing in this place it would set anyone against that if from no other motive but disgust at hearing it,” wrote one Northern soldier about life in camp. Another noted that “Drinking, Swearing, & Gambling is carried on among Officers and men from the highest to the lowest.” The same thing was true of the Continental Army, where cursing was officially discouraged but widely practiced.
So if you ask me, here’s the bottom line: While Abraham Lincoln didn’t curse much, and while profanity wasn’t as ubiquitous in his day as it is in ours, there’s nothing particularly inaccurate about the movie’s language.
None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s interesting that moviegoers are surprised at the notion that nineteenth-century Americans had an arsenal of vulgarities at their disposal and the moxie to use them. I think it’s because they look so stern and dignified in those old paintings and photos. We’re so used to seeing them in gilt frames and on marble pedestals that encountering them in any other way can be a jolt.
When I wrote my own review of Lincoln, I said this: “You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink. Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.”
Based on some of the responses to the movie that have hit the Interwebs since then, I might need to revise that statement. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was the main draw for me, but at least some viewers apparently had different expectations.
I have a tendency to judge all Lincoln-related movies by how convincingly they depict him. If a film can sell me on its Lincoln, I can overlook any number of other flaws. Conversely, if I don’t buy the Lincoln, then it’s hard for me to appreciate other strengths a movie might have. I’ve enjoyed quite a few good Lincoln portrayals over the years, performances that have captured particular aspects of the genuine article—Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, and Sam Waterston are favorites of mine—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody inhabit the role as completely as Day-Lewis. I didn’t love everything about Spielberg’s film, but what I really wanted to see was Lincoln himself, and I left the theater satisfied.
Some historians have noted the movie’s inaccuracies, which is a perfectly proper thing for historians to be doing. Other commentators, though, seem less interested in what the filmmakers did wrong as much as they’re interested in what they didn’t do at all.
Over at The Atlantic, for example, Tony Horwitz writes, “I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here’s my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.” Sure, but it also would’ve made for a completely different film. Spielberg and Kushner made a conscious decision to focus on the last months of Lincoln’s life. Including his transformation from a fairly conservative Whig into the man who embraced the Thirteenth Amendment and made public references to limited black enfranchisement would have required not a longer movie, but another one.
Historian Kate Masur, meanwhile, complains that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.…Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.…[I]t reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.” But this isn’t a movie “devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery.” It’s a movie about the twilight of Lincoln’s presidency. Any examination of the men who stood at the pinnacle of the American government in the 1860′s is inevitably going to spend most of its time on white men.
William Harris wrote a book about the last months of Lincoln’s second term; I don’t think anyone who would criticize that book for failing to analyze the evolution of Lincoln’s views on race from 1858 to 1865 would get much of a hearing. Similarly, I think most of us would be quite surprised if a reviewer referred to a novel about Lincoln as “an opportunity squandered” because the book didn’t deal with African-American life in nineteenth-century Washington.
Yet Masur ultimately concludes that the move is “an opportunity squandered.” That sort of reaction is legitimate when it comes to major museum exhibits or interpretation at an important historic site, since those are educational institutions which can and should try to tell definitive stories about their subjects. Movies shouldn’t have to be so authoritative.
We seem to hold filmmakers to a lower standard when it comes to getting the facts straight, but a higher one when it comes to deciding what to include and what not to include. The reason, I think, is because movies reach so many people and leave such an impression. We envy filmmakers their audience and their influence, and since we know how many stories about the past need telling, we want filmmakers to use the tremendous resources at their disposal to tell the ones that matter to us, as well as to tell their own stories well.
My favorite scene in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln takes place in the War Department’s telegraph office, as Lincoln and Stanton are waiting for news from Wilmington, NC. Lincoln decides to tell the assembled staff a vulgar story about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen. Stanton, already on the verge of bursting with the tension, can’t handle another of his boss’s rambling yarns and goes scurrying off. As the room erupts in laughter, the camera cuts to a portrait of Washington hanging overhead. The first president’s stern face gazes down impassively on one of his unlikeliest successors—an awkward, unpolished frontier lawyer—who’s cracking up at his own off-color joke, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s sitting at the nerve center of a vast war machine.
As it happens, the anecdote in question is one the historical Lincoln actually told on at least a couple of occasions.
Abner Ellis was one of many Lincoln acquaintances who shared their recollections about the slain president with William H. Herndon. Here’s how Ellis recorded the Ethan Allen story in a written statement from 1866, which you can find in the collection of Herndon’s research material edited by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis:
It appears that Shortly after we had pease with England Mr Allen had occasion to visit England, and while their the English took Great pleasure in teasing him, and trying to Make fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington, and hung it up the Back House whare Mr Allen Could see it
and they finally asked Mr A if he saw that picture of his freind in the Back House.
Mr Allen said no. but said he thought that it was a very appropriate for an Englishman to Keep it Why they asked, for said Mr Allen their is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman S**t So quick as the Sight of Genl Washington And after that they let Mr Allens Washington alone
(The asterisks aren’t in the original, but you never know who’s reading your blog.)
Ellis wasn’t the only one of Herndon’s sources who remembered Lincoln’s fondness for the Ethan Allen story. On the day the Republican National Convention nominated him for the presidency in Chicago, Lincoln was back in Springfield, playing ball and chewing the fat with some friends. One of them was Christopher C. Brown, who recalled that Lincoln was “nervous, fidgety” that day and that he passed the time telling anecdotes, including the one about “Washingtons picture in a necessary.”
Abner Ellis claimed that he never heard the Allen story from anyone but Lincoln, so one wonders where he got it. I don’t think Ethan Allen went to England after the war, so if the incident with the privy actually happened, it probably wasn’t exactly as Lincoln told it. Allen was imprisoned in England for a while following his capture at Longue-Pointe, so it’s possible that something along the lines of Lincoln’s story could have happened then.
Oddly enough, in the film Lincoln tells the War Department staff that Allen and the Green Mountain Boys captured Ft. Ticonderoga in 1776. The fort actually fell in May of 1775, just a few weeks after the war started. I’m guessing this was a slip on the part of the screenwriter; Lincoln himself had done his share of reading about the Revolution as a kid.
Anyway, it makes for a great scene.
This short classroom film about pioneer life in eighteenth-century Kentucky was produced in 1941, and it makes for an interesting historical artifact in its own right. The frontiersmen are optimistic and hardy, the community in the fort is pleasant and sociable, the food is plentiful, the family slave is faithful, all the Indians are offscreen, and there will “always be freedom out there.” Oh, and the candles are ready in plenty of time for the big hoedown.
How would today’s frontier historians tell this story differently? For that matter, how would the pioneers themselves tell it?
First things first. You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink. Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint. In fact, between the two of them, star Daniel Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner have almost worked a miracle of resurrection.
It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears into the role. It’s that his Lincoln is so complete. We’ve had excellent movie Lincolns before, but I don’t think anyone has captured so many aspects of his personality in one performance. You get the gregarious raconteur as well as the melancholy brooder, the profound thinker as well as the unpolished product of the frontier, the pragmatic political operator as well as the man of principle. He amuses the War Department staff with off-color jokes in one scene, then ruminates on Euclid and the Constitution in another. It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing this side of a time machine, a distillation of all the recollections and anecdotes from Herndon, Welles, and the other contemporaries into one remarkable character study.
And it’s primarily as a character study that the movie stands out, for there is much about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that is unremarkable. Not bad, mind you, but unremarkable. The film takes as its story the effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, and at times it’s too much a run-of-the-mill political procedural. The Thirteenth Amendment was undeniably one of the Civil War’s most important outcomes; it formally ended a divisive institution which had existed in America for more than two centuries and contributed to a fundamental shift in the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government. But it seems—to me, anyway—like an odd method of approach if one is trying to convey all the drama and significance of Lincoln’s presidency in a couple of hours. Why not the Emancipation Proclamation or the ups and downs of the Union’s military fortunes, instead of an issue dependent on so much wheeling, dealing, cajoling, speech-making, and roll-calling? Telling the story of the amendment’s fate makes this a movie that’s as much about democracy as it is about Lincoln himself, and that’s fine, but Day-Lewis and Kushner have given us such an interesting central character that the rest of the film seems unexpectedly average by comparison.
Even Spielberg’s directorial trademarks—his tendency toward sentimentality and his flair as a visual stylist—are surprisingly kept in the background. This movie doesn’t have the signature Spielberg “moments”—no little girl dressed in a crowd of black and white, no thundering footfalls from some unseen menace causing ominous vibrations in the water, no kids on flying bicycles silhouetted against the moon. One scene between Lincoln and Mary does have a distinctively “Spielbergian” sense of light and shadow, but other than that, the director’s fingerprints are not really apparent. It’s a very restrained, straightforward effort.
Perhaps that’s as it should be, because ultimately this show belongs to the screenwriter and the cast. Like Lincoln himself, Kushner has a flair for language, and the dialogue is some of his best work. Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn give some of the finest performances of their careers, and Jackie Earle Haley looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.
Ultimately, though, when this movie soars it’s because it makes one of the most compelling figures in American history seem to live again. When I was in the museum business, we used to bring in Lincoln impersonators to do presentations for groups of schoolchildren. These events were always a lot of fun, but the most memorable moments for me happened offstage, when “Lincoln” would relax on a couch in the office, out of character. At those times you could catch a glimpse of him, sitting there in a black suit with his stovepipe hat on the table beside him, one long leg folded over the other while he chatted and joked with the staff. It was downright surreal. This, I would think to myself, is what it must have been like to sit in the telegraph office at the War Department or in a parlor at the Executive Mansion, watching Lincoln just being himself. I had the same thought the first time Spielberg’s Lincoln appeared on the screen, and that was more than worth the price of a movie ticket.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is out on DVD now, and my mom has been determined to see it, for reasons unfathomable to me. The day before yesterday she went to the local rental place, and every copy was checked out. Every single one.
She went back again yesterday, and still had no luck.
On her way home from work today she tried for the third time, and there was one copy available. She snagged it and carried it around while looking over the other new releases, and while she was in the store she overheard two different people ask the clerk if there were any extra copies of AL:VH in the back.
Maybe it’ll be one of those movies that die an ignominious death in theaters only to enjoy cult status in the home video market.
By the way, Mom didn’t like it.
Pyongyang is just about the last place in the world you’d expect to find GWTW fans, but apparently you can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting one.
Maybe the notion of a society devastated by war and famine is especially resonant in North Korea. Or maybe it appeals to some aspect of East Asian culture in general; Tony Horwtiz mentioned GWTW‘s popularity among Japanese visitors to Atlanta in Confederates in the Attic.
Personally, I think the explanation is pretty simple: Margaret Mitchell was a master storyteller who knew how to create remarkable characters. Sure, her portrayal of the Old South was mythical—but holy cow, what a myth she managed to build.
A Chinese guy who ordered a t-shirt with a Patrick Henry quote on it is appealing his sentence of two years in a labor camp. When you live in America, it’s easy to forget that in some parts of the world those 250-year-old words are still…well, revolutionary.