A long time ago I did this blog about how to “be” a historical figure on Twitter. One of the most fun things about Twitter is to connect with people who tweet as historical figures, and who convey a lot of really good (and fun) information while doing so.
One of my favorite historical accounts ever is Mr_Lincoln, which alternates between tweets that are “in character” of the nation’s sixteenth president, and also tweets by the account’s owner, Geoff Elliott, about Lincoln. If you don’t follow Mr_Lincoln I strongly suggest you do so–you’ll not only learn a lot, but you’ll get some very good insights about Lincoln, about history in general and various other things. He also runs an excellent blog about Lincoln which showcases both his depth of knowledge about the most famous American who ever lived, and also his admiration and respect for who Lincoln was as a statesman, as a politician and a human being.
I had the good fortune to catch up with Geoff recently and he agreed graciously to to an interview for this blog. Here’s what we talked about. My questions are in boldface, and Geoff’s answers are in normal type.
Why do you think Americans are still uniquely drawn to the figure of Abraham Lincoln, now nearly 150 years since his death?
I think there are several reasons for the continued fascination Lincoln holds for countless people around the world. He’s the stereotypical American success story; rising from poverty with almost no formal education to achieve greatness. He led the nation through its bloodiest conflict and helped to eradicate institutionalized slavery. His tragic assassination and it’s ensuing effects which still linger in our country today are another huge reason for the overwhelming interest people have in him. Even his wit and humor which endure him to us today are other reasons.
What values or attitudes that Lincoln held do you think people today most admire?
Lincoln’s dedication to self-improvement and hard work is one trait almost every person admires. He once said that his goal was to be esteemed by his fellow men by rendering himself worthy of their esteem. Lincoln achieved greatness through an extraordinary desire to better himself and to make a difference.
How did you begin your personal “relationship” with Lincoln? How did your fascination with him begin?
When I was approximately 3 or 4 years old, my parents took me to the Lincoln Birthplace Memorial near Hodgenville, Kentucky. I don’t remember the visit, of course, but apparently from that point on, I was hooked on learning as much about Lincoln as possible. While other children asked for books by Dr. Seuss, I asked for books about Lincoln. I’m now 50 years old, and my fascination endures.
What would you say is the most important or useful thing you’ve been able to communicate to the public about Lincoln?
In addition to providing the basic facts about every part of Lincoln’s life, I strive to help people understand the “real” man behind the myths. We as a society tend to mythologize our famous historical figures. But like any of us, even our heroes have foibles, tragedy, missteps, and flaws. My attempts to “humanize” Lincoln are not meant to shatter the myths. Quite the contrary, I share stories about the “real” Lincoln in order to show the public how he achieved greatness in spite of a lot of obstacles.
I suspect that part of the reason Lincoln has been enshrined in our national consciousness is that his death occurred at the height of his accomplishment. If he had been able to serve out his second term, how do you think our appreciation of him might be different?
Lincoln’s tragic loss certainly turned him into a martyr for the cause of Union and freedom. He was instantly compared to Jesus since Lincoln, too, was martyred on a Good Friday. He was also compared to Moses, another figure who led his people to victory, only to not be able to share in that victory himself. I think if Lincoln had been able to serve out his second term, his story would be very different. He would have faced huge battles with Congress over Reconstruction and to a lesser extent, civil rights for the former slaves. Had he lived, he assuredly would not be a martyr. He probably wouldn’t have been so adored as he is today.
Let’s talk about Spielberg’s Lincoln movie. You obviously liked it. (So did I, I thought it was a brilliant film). What do you think this movie can show people about Lincoln that they might not have known or appreciated before?
I think those people who didn’t read “Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, upon which the film is based, were absolutely stunned to find out that Lincoln was indeed a brilliant politician. Most people seem to have this idea that Lincoln was above politics, that he sagely handed down new laws from on high. He didn’t mind getting “down and dirty” in the trenches when situations called for it.
What about other movies about Lincoln? Which ones do you like or not like? Personally, my favorite was Abe Lincoln in Illinois starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln, but it’s utterly impossible to find on video. What other actors do you think have done a good job?
Personally, this is the first film I’ve ever seen about Lincoln that I have truly enjoyed. I’ve seen Abe Lincoln In Illinois once and did not care for it. I felt that Massey made Lincoln seem like a dullard and didn’t like his voice. I’ve also seen Young Mr. Lincoln which starred Henry Fonda. A decent portrayal, but I didn’t care for the film. Hal Holbrook is a favorite actor of mine and I loved the job he did as Lincoln in the old TV mini-series, Sandburg’s Lincoln. As for the recent film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, well, it was campy fun and not nearly as good as the mashup book of the same name. I think Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the President in Spielberg’s Lincoln will remain the definitive portrayal of Lincoln, at least in my lifetime. It was an exceptional, astonishing acting performance and I believe he’ll be the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actor Academy Award.
On Twitter you often tweet “as” Lincoln. There are also others on Twitter who “portray” various historical characters (for example, I know we both follow Harry Truman). What do you think is the key to “being” somebody like Lincoln on social media?
Anyone can “portray” a historical figure like Truman or Lincoln in social media, but the key is the knowledge you have about that figure which you wish to portray. To be a good or effective virtual portrayer or “re-enactor” in social media, you need to have a good depth of knowledge and understanding about the figure. Knowing quotes from the figure is good as well. Having access to resources like books, Google, etc. is key as well. I admit, sometimes people on social media will ask me something I may not know as well as I’d like. I take a few minutes to do some quick research before I reply. Finally, the “portrayer” must be willing to interact with followers and fans. That in addition helps me to make “Lincoln” seem more real to people.
By the way, the person who “portrays” President Harry Truman is in real life a woman who happens to have a passion for Truman. You needn’t necessarily be the same gender as the person you’re portraying. She does an absolutely fantastic job as “Harry” and remains completely in character all the time on Twitter, something which I don’t do. I remain in character on my Lincoln Facebook page at facebook.com/honestabrahamlincoln.
Let’s take that a step farther. There are people who “play” historical characters in real life—I’m thinking specifically of the fellow (he’s on Twitter too) who plays Thomas Jefferson, and often goes to libraries, museums and such, in period dress and portraying Jefferson as an actor would. Obviously you don’t do that, but what do you think of this? Is this good for history or not? Should there be “qualifications” for doing this sort of thing?
The gentleman who portrays Thomas Jefferson is an exceptional re-enactor and works at Colonial Williamsburg. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of our 3rd President. I’ve seen him in person and was deeply impressed. He used Jefferson’s exact words in response to questions asked of “Jefferson” by audience members.
As you stated, I don’t portray Lincoln in person. One of the main reasons is that at average height of 5’11”, I would be a ridiculously short Abe Lincoln, who of course towered at 6’4”. With his stovepipe hat on, he approached almost 7 feet tall. I’ve actually lost out on speaking engagements/lectures because I don’t portray Abraham Lincoln in person. It seems as if many organizations, churches, or clubs would rather have someone dressed up as Lincoln, even though his knowledge of the real Lincoln may not be broad or deep.
I admit to having mixed feelings about portrayals of historical figures. If the re-enactor is very skilled, has great knowledge, and looks like the figure, then history can come to life. But I’ve seen laughable portrayers as well, people who “play” Lincoln simply because they’re tall. The knowledge isn’t there, the acting ability isn’t there. In those cases, the portrayal is more about obsession and ego, not about the desire to teach. I would say that most re-enactors I’ve encountered for any historical figures they portray are poor at what they do.
Seems weird I’d say this, but for me at least, I think portraying Lincoln in person would take my fascination into the realm of obsession. It’s OK for me to do so virtually, but not in person.
In one of your blogs you mention David Herbert Donald’s excellent biography Lincoln, which I also love. What are some other books you’d recommend about Lincoln?
My personal favorite book about Lincoln is titled “Twenty Days” about the assassination and ensuing funerals held for him in 13 U.S. cities. It was originally published in 1965 on the 100th anniversary of the assassination by the Meserve/Kundhardt family. Frederick Hill Meserve was one of the earliest collectors of “Lincolnia” and set up the first catalog system of Lincoln photographs.
This book is full of rare photographs documenting the assassination, funerals, capture and execution of Booth’s co-conspirators. Truly an outstanding record of this American tragedy.
The book is, I believe, out of print. But you can easily find copies of it on eBay for under $20.00.
Another good biography is “A. Lincoln” written by Ronald C. White. A definitive book about the assassination and hunt for Booth is “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer” written by James L. Swanson. Another good book about the assassination is “Blood On The Moon” by Ed Steers. You can’t go wrong with anything written by James McPherson, author of “Battle Cry Of Freedom” about the Civil War. His recent book “Tried By War” is about Lincoln’s struggles to find a competent general or two. A good, basic introduction for people who don’t know much about the war and Lincoln.
Any Lincoln book written by the greatest living Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer, is worthwhile reading. See “Lincoln At Cooper Union” for an excellent account of the speech which did more to make Lincoln President than any other one thing.
As for Bill O’Reilly’s book “Killing Lincoln”, I offer no comment other to say that Ford’s Theatre refuses to sell it due to numerous errors in it.
And finally, the Lincoln-Book-Which-Will-Not-Die has to be Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 tome “Team Of Rivals”. It’s a decent book, but absolutely undeserving of the continuous hype surrounding it. It contains no new research, broke no new ground, and is seemingly endless at over 900 pages in length. There are far better Lincoln books by true Lincoln scholars/historians who don’t have issues with plagiarism, as Goodwin did with her book about the Kennedys. Not a fan.
I want to thank Geoff Elliott for giving me his time and such thoughtful answers, and especially the wonderful suggestions of books about Lincoln that should keep any fan of our 16th president busy for quite a while! This was a really fun blog to do, and I really do encourage you to follow “Mr_Lincoln” on Twitter and surf over to Geoff’s blog once in a while.
The perseverance, bravery, wisdom and compassion of Abraham Lincoln will never be forgotten and will never go out of style. As long as there is a United States of America, I think Americans will continue to hold up Lincoln as their greatest countryman. He remains a fascinating and engaging figure, and, through efforts like Geoff’s, still uniquely accessible to us today.