Hollywood and Interpretation at President Lincoln's Cottage

This is the sixth and final post in a weekly blog series connecting Spielberg’s Lincoln to President Lincoln’s Cottage.

(Image courtesy of Dreamworks)

A few weeks ago a visitor on one of my tours asked “how has the ‘Lincoln’ movie changed your interpretation—or has it?” Predictably, I went into academic mode (my default setting for better or worse), and  immediately answered that the content and analysis put forward on our tours could only be changed by evolutions in historical scholarship: a new argument put forward by a respected scholar or perhaps new source materials coming to light. In the strictest sense this is correct, only rigorously made arguments backed by a vast array of primary sources should have the ability to profoundly alter our own carefully researched interpretation. Yet in a broader sense, the Lincoln movie has changed our interpretation simply by presenting more profound avenues of potential engagement with our visitors. One goal of our tour has always been to connect our visitors with Lincoln the human being; the besieged war president confronted with ever-present reminders of the cost of war; the grieving father distraught over the loss of a son; the president who thoughtfully considered and reconsidered the meaning of the war. This has been part of the genius of Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal in the movie; it allows a broad audience to connect with history on an intimate, meaningful, level. Consequently, while the movie’s chronological scope does not include any of the thirteen months Lincoln resided at Soldier’s Home, many of the themes that undergird the movie are consistent with those emphasized in our interpretation: the relationship between Union and Emancipation, the cost of the war, the very redefining and reconfiguring of the meaning of liberty, and at the center of it all was the man whose expressions of “deep latent sadness” cannot help but move us all.

It is now our job at President Lincoln’s Cottage to seize on visitor’s enthusiasm about the Lincoln movie and use it as an opportunity to further visitor interest in Lincoln and Civil War history. The story of Lincoln’s time at Soldier’s Home is, for all the reasons outlined above, perfectly positioned to capitalize on the enthusiasm generated by Lincoln. Yet this is not a mission we can, or should undertake alone. I expect Civil War scholars, and even American historians in general will tire of answering people’s questions about the movie, or wondering why Lincoln should get all the attention when there are so many other worthy subjects out there waiting to be brought to a wider audience.  To those who put forward this argument, I can only think to respond: it is incumbent upon us to write better history. No, your book probably will not be turned into a Tony Kushner screen-play, and yes there are much better books to base movies off of then “Team of Rivals,” but we in the history field must do a better job at blending rigorous analysis and research with compelling narrative. Most of us will probably not write the next New York Times bestseller, but it is time to stop pretending that writing scholarship that cannot be understood by anyone outside academia is a positive thing for the discipline or the general public. Maybe that should be the true legacy of the Lincoln movie—that when history is powerfully done, regardless of the medium, it will resonate with everyone.

-Scott Ackerman, Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage

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