The tepid popular response to Lincoln bicentennial celebrations and exhibits promotes a series of questions among historians, museum administrators, and other scholars. Is Lincoln’s appeal fading, as authors Merrill Peterson and Barry Schwartz suggest? Perhaps, as Vernon Burton recently speculated, Americans have had “too much Lincoln.” Or is Lincoln being refashioned in places and by constituencies less visible to scholars? Deeper consideration of these questions provides historians with new avenues for exploring the processes of historical memory and the changing nature of commemoration. As Civil War scholar David Blight noted in 2002, “all memory is prelude to future reckonings”; the public appreciation of Lincoln reflects far more than heightened or diminished veneration of a once-beloved figure.
This panel investigates the larger issues of historical memory through an examination of reflections on the sixteenth president by populations previously neglected by historians. David Silkenat considers how ex-slaves characterized Lincoln in 1930s WPA interviews, and discovers a more complex reception of the “Great Emancipator.” Leslie Lindenauer and Marcy May evaluate contemporary images of Lincoln in American popular culture, and find evidence of a reinvigorated, more masculine Lincoln. Christopher Castiglia reviews arguments over Lincoln’s sexuality to consider how queer theory may reconfigure our perceptions of the president. The reconsideration of Lincoln in historical memory allows us to explore the shifting significance of the President, and to discern changes in the political anxieties and hopes of modern Americans as they construct the usable past.