Sociologist Barry Schwartz, reflecting on Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and especially Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), a film adapted from Robert Sherwood’s (1938) Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and Carl Sandburg’s (1926) Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, offered this perspective on cinematic public memory:
Moving pictures of Lincoln, then, did more than express Depression-era sentiment; they organized it, made it conceivable, intelligible, communicable, and public. The primary power of art, according to Susanne Langer, is the power of “formulating experience, and presenting it objectively for contemplation.” Just so, the function of film was to represent Lincoln not so much as an historical entity as a historical symbol through which the calamities of the present could be made meaningful.1
Whatever one makes of Schwartz’s film theory, we find here his familiar and valuable (if also valuably contestable) formulation of the constructed past’s mediating and motivating functions as mirror and lamp, especially as embodied in the remarkably durable, because malleable and meaningful, figure of Abraham Lincoln. What, we may ask still, always, does Lincoln memory—and its rhetorical history—do? [End Page 113]
Seven decades later we encounter the long-awaited successor for those early masterpieces in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). Adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s (2005) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film depicts the Great Emancipator not in his formative years but in the last of his “trial by fire” as a beleaguered war president seeking to secure in the coming peace those precious freedoms constituted if not fully materialized in the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, this story derives from Lincoln’s fear that freedom’s promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, wartime measure after all, may not survive the Civil War itself. Thus Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner feature the perilous congressional fight in January 1865 and its complex, often unseemly, behind-the-scenes machinations in ultimately successful breath-holding pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment. An epic film spanning just four months in the president’s life, it concludes with his deathbed scene, Stanton’s “Now he belongs to the ages,” and finally in flashback his own transcendent words from the Second Inaugural Address. Notably, however, the film eschews hagiography through its depiction of Lincoln’s coarse if not corrupt politics on behalf of freedmen, though here Spielberg and Kushner are not unique: Lincoln’s best memory agents from the beginning have known that homeliness, paradoxically, affords a deep and lasting burnish. And if one also senses in Lincoln a political parable for our own times, well, then, perhaps we’ve been visited by the better angels of our nature.
Not surprisingly, of course, because of Lincoln’s box office success, because it is Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, this Lincoln memory matters (no one is similarly invested in the other 2012 Abraham Lincoln film). As Northwestern historian Kate Masur declared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Moviegoers and historians alike should pay attention. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of art, a film about morality, democracy, and human agency that tells us something about its creators and—since Lincoln will be watched and loved by millions—about ourselves. Like any other movie, novel, or painting, the film ought to be discussed and critiqued. Indeed, it should be subjected to a particularly searching analysis precisely because of its prominence and power.”2 And so it has been with Lincoln, much discussed and praised and critiqued.3 We have seen countless tributes to Daniel Day-Lewis’s uncanny Academy [End Page 114] Award–winning portrayal and swooning reviews with laurelled language such as A. O. Scott calling Lincoln a “rough and noble democratic masterpiece—an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.”4 We have also seen objections to Kushner’s favored sources, copious reports about historical inaccuracies (in language, depiction, interpretation), and graver objections regarding the racial disposition of the narrative and the “truth” of freedom’s labor: Masur’s critique of passive black characters and the absence of Frederick Douglass; Eric Foner’s insistence that “Emancipation—like all far-reaching political change—resulted...