Richard Wightman Fox is Professor of History at University of Southern California. This is interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History (W.W. Norton and Company, February 2015).
JF: What led you to write Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History?
RF: Each of my books since Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1985) emerged in my mind as a way of answering a question left hanging by the previous work. Niebuhr had dismissed most late-nineteenth-century liberal Protestants as sentimental utopians, and Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal (1999), my study of Henry Ward Beecher’s encounter with Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton, I explored whether Niebuhr was right. The range of meanings– human and divine, worldly and religious– that Beecher and the Tiltons had bestowed upon Jesus led me to undertake the whole sweep of Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (2004), an effort to examine his secular and sacred incarnations throughout American history.
As I was finishing Jesus in America, I kept mulling over Abraham Lincoln’s striking lack of interest in him. While Lincoln thought continuously about God and Providence in the 1860s, he rarely mentioned Jesus. After the assassination in 1865, African Americans and most northern whites couldn’t stop comparing his bodily sacrifice to the death of Jesus on the cross.
Immediately the title of my next book came to me: Lincoln’s Body would investigate how black and white Americans, North and South, experienced Lincoln’s death, and how their religious reflections on him intertwined or collided with their republican understanding of him. That general goal remained constant up to the present, but the time frame of the book changed completely.
At first, I thought Lincoln’s Body would cover only a six-week period, from Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865 to the end of the official mourning on June 1, 1865. I imagined writing a detailed cultural history that would follow the still breathing Lincoln out the door of Ford’s Theatre at about 10:30 p.m., across the street to the Petersen house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning, and then depict all the movements of his corpse through the public viewings conducted in twelve cities in seven states and the District of Columbia. All along the way, I would assess what people thought about Lincoln’s body in the midst of their shock and grief.
I did write that book. But I, and my editor at W. W. Norton, Alane Salierno Mason, weren’t satisfied with the six-week coverage. It was clear to us both that in the actual experience of Lincoln’s contemporaries, the end of the official mourning period on June 1, 1865 did nothing to stop either the grieving or the reflecting on the meanings of Lincoln’s body. Americans had only barely begun to make sense of the unique and larger-than-life man they had lost. Oddly enough, from our standpoint, northerners were both devastated by Lincoln’s “taking off”– a phrase they intentionally borrowed from his favorite play, “Macbeth”— and happy for him that he had died such a good, fulfilling death. To be martyred in the midst of public adulation over one’s majestic achievements was the death any devoted republican would hope for.
The further I pushed the story forward chronologically, the more gripping I found it. There was never a time, all the way up to the present, when Lincoln’s body was not being re-configured by one group or another. There was never a time when blacks and whites were not appealing to his physical appearance and his physical power—along with his words and deeds—for inspiration. His body, his speeches, and his actions all supplied illumination about who they were as Americans, and what their Republic stood for.
Conveniently for me, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln movie appeared just in time for me to end my book with it. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the president reminded Americans in 2012 of the bodily presence that had never failed, in the 150 years following Lincoln’s death, to draw citizens toward him, to call their love for him “personal,” as Walt Whitman said in 1863.
RF: Lincoln placed his body at the center of his politics, putting himself perpetually in touch with the people, plunging into their midst to show them that in a good republic (as against a monarchy) leaders claimed no superiority to the led, and that in a good republic all men were in principle equal, even black men—thousands of whom he chose to accompany, ten days before his death, on a spontaneous afternoon promenade through downtown Richmond, Virginia. To his fellow citizens, “Lincoln’s body” comprised his raw appearance (both his looks and his demeanor), his unprecedented physical accessibility, and the gradual wartime withering of his flesh, culminating in his voluntary physical surrender for the nation.
JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Body?
RF: Only individual readers can decide, in retrospect, if they needed to read a particular book. I hope that many people who take up Lincoln’s Body will say to themselves, when they put it down, “I needed that.” I think it’s a moving and informative story. And it helps us grasp how cultural memory works on the ground—year-by-year, decade-by-decade– as people recollect their past in what are always, explicitly or implicitly, politically charged ways. Memory is entwined with power. Over time, in the case of Lincoln, remembering has entailed a strong measure of forgetting, as Americans and many foreigners have cleared their brains and hearts for new conceptions of an iconic figure as visually and verbally commanding as he has always been.
I hope readers come away from Lincoln’s Body with a new sense of how black and white remembering of him took divergent paths starting in the 1860s, but intersected too, most powerfully in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Placing black memories of Lincoln in a position of equality with white memories is essential to keeping alive Lincoln’s vision (shared with his acquaintance Frederick Douglass) of a unitary body politic in which all are free to pursue their callings in “the race of life.”
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RF: I majored in history in college, but I studied Europe, especially France, not the United States. Vietnam changed all that. When I went to graduate school in the early 1970s, I was preoccupied with twentieth-century America. Over the next several decades I moved backwards in time, and moved from “social and intellectual” history to “cultural” history (which to my mind still includes the “social and intellectual”).
Finally I landed back in Lincoln’s era. I had already found nineteenth-century America irresistible in Trials of Intimacy. I learned from Beecher and the Tiltons that the men and women of Victorian America can at one moment seem just like us, only to catch us suddenly unawares when they say or do something that seems utterly alien to our world.
Working on Lincoln, I was constantly struck by this dynamic. His white and black supporters noticed his unusual mix of humility and shrewdness, as most Americans still do today. But his white contemporaries kept calling him “ugly and grotesque,” even when they supported him politically and loved him personally. He kept conceding, with a smile, that his looks didn’t measure up, which made him all the more endearing.
The relentless and explicit targeting of his looks by friends and foes alike strikes me as the cultural practice of a world very far away from ours. In the twentieth-first century, looks are of course no less important, but no one could get away with calling a public figure “ugly and grotesque.” There would be serious repercussions.