Next week, when the first visitors enter Ford’s Theatre’s new Center for Education and Leadership, they’ll be greeted by a stunning 34-foot tower comprised of thousands of copies of the over 15,000 published books on Lincoln. Take a look:
That’s a lot of Lincoln books, and we’ve surely played a role in the proliferation. And we’re not stopping, either, at least not now, in the midst of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. We even have a new one this month from Harold Holzer, who has authored, co-authored, or edited over 30 books on Lincoln. A winner of the National Humanities Medal in 2008, Holzer is known as one of the country’s leading authorities on the political culture of the Civil War era. And, as it happens, he’ll be at the Center for Education and Leadership for its grand opening on President’s Day, February 20th, joining Michael Beschloss and Chris Matthews in a discussion of presidential leadership.
In the new book, Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory, Holzer takes a fresh look at the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s most important—but, Holzer argues, most misunderstood and under-appreciated—piece of writing. He examines the Proclamation in three distinctive ways: as a brilliantly timed news event (using original sources to explain how it was variously withheld, leaked, published, promoted, and ultimately elevated into iconic status in the years before the historical neglect began); as a piece of literature (asking what modern Americans are to make of its leaden prose and suggesting that Lincoln’s subsequent orations on freedom represented the “poetry” to accompany and embellish its legalistic tone); and in terms of the popular art works it inspired, both for reputation-celebrating purposes after Lincoln’s assassination and martyrdom, and for commercial profit. The book, drawn from Holzer’s Nathan I. Huggins Lectures, is designed to shed new light on the increasingly contentious debate about the meaning of what Lincoln himself believed to be his greatest act and his most significant contribution to history—examining it in words and pictures, then and now.
Emancipating Lincoln can be thought of as presenting the life of the document, its original status as a collectible, as an inspiration for soaring oratory, and as a stimulus for reverential portraiture. Holzer draws heavily from previously neglected original sources, the existence of which may seem hard to believe, given all those Lincoln books in that tower. Even in their shadow, though, Holzer has written the first book to interpret the meaning of Lincoln’s most famous executive order as it was greeted by the news media, collectors, organizers of charity fairs, artists, sculptors and print publishers.