Rembering Abraham Lincoln:
Man, Myth, and Meaning

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The Life of Abraham Lincoln
(Lincoln History Society, 1909)

Abraham Lincoln is among the most written about U.S. presidents. As of 2008, the Library of Congress lists over 2,000 publications about Lincoln. Lincoln’s role in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery make him a monumental figure in U.S. history; and yet, it is not only his political legacy but also his character that have intrigued generations of Americans. Upon his assassination in 1865, Lincoln was immediately deified. In the following decades, writers and publishers imbued the memory of Lincoln with myth – so much so that today it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Lincoln has become the ideal statesman, the savior of the Union, the great emancipator, the folk legend, the common man, and the embodiment of the American Dream. The way we choose to remember this mythic American hero reveals as much about our own ideals as it does about his actual life. Visual imagery on publishers’ bindings can contribute to an analysis of Lincoln in American memory

Read our brief biography of Abraham Lincoln

 

Lincoln the Ideal Statesman
In 1885 Allen Thorndike Rice, publisher of the North American Review (a prominent 19th century literary magazine), collected personal memories of Abraham Lincoln from notable public figures such as Frederick Douglass, Ulysses S. Grant, and Walt Whitman. One year later, the North American Review published these submissions in a collection entitled Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln. Publishing personal recollections of Lincoln was a popular trend in the late 1800s. These recollections tended to present Lincoln as a gifted politician and natural leader. Writers ranged from those who had worked closely with the president to those who had only met him once or twice, and they rarely supported their narratives with documentation. Thus, while these publications contributed greatly to the myth of Lincoln, it is difficult to ascertain their historical accuracy.

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Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln
(North American Review, 1888)


The North American Review used a neoclassical-style binding for its 1888 publication of
Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln. The cover features a gold-stamped medallion with a Roman-style bust of Lincoln. Since America’s founding, artists have used neoclassical styles to associate America and its political leaders with ideals of democracy, order and empire. After Lincoln’s death, artists continued this neoclassical tradition to place the martyred president’s memory within a legacy of great republican leaders. Rice wrote in his introduction to Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, “If we have not had our age of Pericles, of Augustus, or of Leo, we can boast of a history that has given us, within the period of a century, the patriotism of a Washington, and Lincoln, and a Grant” (xxii).

Read an excerpt from Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln

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The Story of Young Abraham Lincoln
(Henry Altemus Co., 1918)

Lincoln the Folk Hero
In the early 20th century, juvenile series novels became increasingly popular. These wholesome adventure novels were mass produced, cheaply bound, and inexpensive. In a time of increasing anxiety over the feminizing influences of urbanization and middle class office work, many juvenile series featured rugged, manly characters on adventures overseas, in the military, or in the Wild West. Henry Altemus Co. began publishing juvenile series in 1909, and continued through the 1930s. Among these was the American History Makers Series, which included The Story of Young George Washington, The Story of Young Benjamin Franklin, and The Story of Young Abraham Lincoln.

Juvenile series novels often used colorful poster-style bindings to attract the attention of young readers. The cover of the 1918 edition of The Story of Young Abraham Lincoln features an illustration of Lincoln throwing an opponent in a wrestling match. Appealing to the male youth market, this illustration presents Lincoln as a brawny folk hero. The book is filled with folk tales and anecdotes about Lincoln’s frontier youth that emphasizes his rugged masculinity. Although the author, Wayne Whipple, claims historical accuracy in his introduction, the book is obviously intended as entertainment and moral teaching, not legitimate scholarship.

Read an excerpt from The Story of Young Abraham Lincoln

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The Story of Abraham Lincoln
(M. A. Donohue, 1927)

Lincoln the Self-Made Man
Lincoln’s biographers have often presented him as a self-made man. Unprivileged and uneducated, Lincoln is credited with rising to power through hard work, determination, and moral inscrutability. For many Americans, Lincoln’s life offered proof that the American Dream was possible. The archetypal log cabin, Lincoln’s childhood home, symbolized this possibility. In the 1890s, there was a movement to memorialize the places of Lincoln’s childhood. These places would serve as national reminders that every American, no matter how humble his beginnings, could rise to greatness.

In 1891, the Abraham Lincoln Log Cabin Association bought a cabin in Coles County, Illinois that Lincoln and his family allegedly lived in during his childhood. Eleanor Gridley, secretary of the association, spent a summer researching the cabin and interviewing local residents. The cabin was then dismantled and reassembled for exhibition in Chicago. M. A. Donohue & Co. published Gridley’s research in a book entitled The Story of Abraham Lincoln. The cover of the 1927 edition features a stamped picture of a log cabin juxtaposed against the White House, symbolizing Lincoln’s journey as a self-made man.

Read an excerpt from The Story of Abraham Lincoln

The ideal statesman, the folk hero, and self-made man are only three examples of how Lincoln has been envisioned by American authors and artists. We invite you to explore the PBO database for more pictoral representations of Abraham Lincoln on Publisher's Book Bindings.

Search the PBO database for books about Abraham Lincoln


Selected Readings

Fehrenbacher, Don E. Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays. Stanford, Califoria: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Peterson, Marrill D. Lincoln in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Related Online Resources

Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project
http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/

Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/malhome.html

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, Ill.)
http://www.alincoln-library.com/home.html

American Experience: The Time of the Lincolns
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/lincolns/

American President: Abraham Lincoln
http://www.americanpresident.org/history/abrahamlincoln/

Federal Lincoln Bicentennial Site
http://www.lincoln200.gov/

Lincoln Museum (Fort Wayne, Ind.)
http://www.thelincolnmuseum.org/

 

 

                       
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