Historians and Storytellers

Recently on c-span3, I happened upon a rebroadcast of a discussion on the Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863importance of Abraham Lincoln and the role of the arts in history. During the conversation, which extolled Lincoln’s genius, his foresight in understanding how the nation’s treatment of slavery would decide its fate, it was decided that Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln could not possible have captured the man and his genius in the narrow slice of his presidency that was the film’s focus.

Some of the criticisms leveled against the film were that:

  • Spielberg’s Lincoln (inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) focused too tightly on the period surrounding the passage of the 13th amendment at the expense of the importance of Lincoln’s efforts to save the union
  • The film ignored his efforts to redefine for the nation the founding father’s all-important ideal of human equality in the Gettysburg Address (which preceded the movie’s scope but which genius the movie gave a nod to in the guise of soldiers who recited it to him)
  • That the greatness of Lincoln does not lend itself to the dramatic depiction.
  • That the story of what it took to get the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives—the backroom arm-twisting, the sly innuendoes (but no illegal promises made, it was stipulated)—implied a tawdriness, a shabbiness that shouldn’t have been implied in connection with Lincoln.

It was even suggested that the movie should have ended with the Lincolns driving off to the theatre that fateful evening. Period. Happy ending. Why display his death?

And why, for heavens sake, must the movie include all that gratuitous family nonsense—the arguments with Mary, with Robert over his desire to enlist?

Quite honestly, I thought the film was magnificent because of its focus. We can only imagine what burdens Lincoln struggled with in those years he strove to keep the union together. Yes, we read our history, (and so are not viewing the film in a vacuum or as our only source of information,) but reading history doesn’t etch the sharpness of his pain and suffering in our minds. We’re human. Seeing a man burdened by his responsibility, by the impossibility of his goal, burdened with the angst of a father who’d lost sons (Edward, and most recently, Willie), a man who had to deal with his grief while determinedly pursuing the bill’s passage, a father who dreaded losing another son to death while understanding that son’s need to serve in the army, a husband who couldn’t comfort his wife over Willie’s death lest he himself drown in his own sorrow, who tried to deflect his wife’s threats if Robert enlisted because he had to keep his emotions buried to do his job and to deal with his wife’s flights of depression and anger, these images clarify the man, his burdens, his talents, persistence and greatness.

What the film’s timeframe allowed us as viewers and Spielberg as presenter to share was the grit, cunning and darkness—both figuratively and literally—of Washington in the months the bill took to gain passage through Congress. Oil lamps in dark interiors, mud and dust, severed limbs at a hospital, these images are as far from the dry reading of history that most of us experienced in school as were the scenes of Lincoln purposefully telling tales to his constituents and his political cronies. And was the scene in which he lay on the carpet with the sleeping Tad not heartbreaking? These made him human.

We could pity and admire the man—not the famous Daniel Chester French sculpture of Lincoln in its awe-inspiring monument, not the figure in our history books—but the man who labored on under the weight of these circumstances to achieve one of his many defining moments, the passage of the 13th amendment. We could connect with the humanity of the man, and because of the more intense connection brought about by story, by drama, could grieve more for his passing at the hands of his assassin.