ABRAHAM LINCOLN: The Quest for Immortality by Dwight G. Anderson

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: The Quest for Immortality

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A convoluted argument that Lincoln brought on the Civil War in a personal ""quest for immortality"" (per his well-known fear of death) and turned it into a spiritual rebirth for the nation (in which he also replaced GW as the founder). Baldly stated, this doesn't amount to much--nor is it worth much more than briefly musing upon. But Anderson (Political Science, San Diego State) threads his way through so many voguish social-science approaches (from textual comparison to psychobiography), yokes in so many different ""interpretive perspectives"" (from Edmund Wilson, to Norman O. Brown, to Hannah Arendt), and draws so many big-time parallels (at one point, with Rousseau's legislator and Dostoevski's Grand Inquisitor), that the result comes to resemble, at least to Anderson, a comprehensive reformulation of the basis of American global expansionism. ""The outward projection of American constitutionalism can be best understood mythologically, as attempts to repeat the original act of foundation and reestablish a sense of community."" Or: Lincoln ""did more to emancipate American foreign policy than he did for American blacks."" (The writing is not exactly elegant either.) Anderson bases this argument on the antiquated notion of ""two Lincolns""--the ""ambitious politician"" and the ""presidential god."" He then traces both to a book much-read by Lincoln, Parson Weems' biography of Washington (which ""offered two contradictory models of political action"")--but proposes that, contrary to ""conventional wisdom,"" the ""virtuous"" Lincoln was the politician, the ""demonic"" Lincoln the president. The turning point, according to Anderson, was the failure of Lincoln's ""virtuous"" 1848 Mexican War speech to make his reputation. Disillusioned with Washington-the-father, he began acting ""not from filial piety but with a revolutionary vengeance."" Thus his challenge to Stephen Douglas--""not so much to establish a principle as to stake a claim on immortality""--without which ""there probably would have been no crisis after 1858."" In the White House, he posed as the instrument of God; upon his reelection, ""he was the Union""; ""by his death, [he] became the savior of the republic, the one who, by sacrifice and atonement, redeemed the sins of the fathers and gave the nation a new life, a life everlasting."" This sort of theorizing--ahistorical, self-promoting, reductive--is usually left, mercifully, to the academic journals.

Pub Date: March 15th, 1982
Publisher: Knopf