Lincoln's odium

The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln is a bold and difficult idea for a book.

In our circles (dear reader), everyone knows Lincoln was unpopular but his unpopularity is one of many bromides ("McClellan was a great organizer," "the ACW was the first modern war") on which no one wastes curiosity.

In fact, these bromides are designed as prophylaxis against subject development. "We all agree, let's move on." Put another way, lazy writers use these thought tokens so often as EZPass badges that readers are taught to accept them as the legal tender of scholarship.

Over the years, in my mind, I have thoroughly organized my own version of an Unpopular Mr. Lincoln. It is a book that would turn the firehose of contemporary Lincoln criticism into the face of thoughtless Lincoln-loving. Its vast number of chapters would be organized topically - by category of criticism, very heavy on quotes, progressing from the most substantive and credible complaints to the grumbles of partisans. The back of the book would be an examination of the best, sharpest criticism. An extended appendix would ask to what extent Civil War history has been organized to defend Lincoln's decisions, all of which we are currently told, were correct or the best under the circumstances; a second appendix would trace the phrases, ideas and memes of current historians back to their origins in the Republican newspaper editorials of the period. This imaginary book of mine would be the cure for "everyone knows Lincoln was unpopular but..."

Hearing of The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln, I oddly assumed Larry Tagg had written a book plotted out in my own mind.

Actually, The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln starts from an opposite premise: it seeks to correct the idea of Lincoln being popular, "the idol of the common people," presumably the view held beyond our ACW readership. Its organization has to be different because if someone's stock of Lincolniana is so miserably low that he thinks Lincoln was popular, then the author is going to have to take that reader by the hand and lead him along a timeline landscaped with deep context and summary information.

The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln, then, takes the form of a book of essays, each devoted to a phase of the Lincoln presidency and the controversies and criticism in that phase.

This approach is not to my taste; I expected to be bored and disappointed. Actually the essays are so well done, afer the first three I became so excited, I had to get up and walk around to calm down. The summaries of the presidency and the party system pre-Lincoln were superb - and I say this even in full rejection of Tagg's interpretation of Whiggery and the birth of the two-party system.

This brilliance may defeat the marketing ends intended. These are more like treats for advanced ACW readers than digestible foods for general nonfiction readers - unless I'm underrating the latter. I mean, think of the Larry Tagg "brand." What was Generals of Gettysburg? It had the outward form of a reference book but its content was that of delightfully pungent commentary by an entertaining and informed author for a knowing reader. Welcome dummies, welcome cognescenti! Myself straddling the dummy/cognescenti divide (at least re: Gettysburg) I read that non-narrative cover to cover, entry by entry when it came out and enjoyed it immensely.

Tagg here takes the insight and writing skill shown in his tiny biographical gems (in Gettysburg) and dispenses more, better in a much larger medium demanding of him much wider reading and much deeper thought. This is a tour de force demonstration of writing, reading, and thinking.

If old hands have a problem with this book it will be in Tagg's matter-of-fact treatment of Lincoln's mistakes; not that he dwells on them, rather the opposite. He relates an action or decision then goes to the public reaction without the usual elaborate rationalizations and justifications. (I sometimes think authors are terrified to leave the reader unchaperoned in a room with Lincoln.)

Personally, I think this book wasted on general nonfiction readers. We, however, are free to enjoy it and should do so in the knowledge that a work of this quality can rarely come out of an authorial pool as small as that of the ACW and Lincolnology. Bravo.

(Topside: Lincoln's Comedy of Death, a privately circulated cartoon scanned from the book; it's typical of the author's original research and good eye.)