Not being a film critic, I can’t tell you why “Lincoln” is such a fine film. Many excellent and easily accessible reviews have appeared online. Most are more concerned with Steven Spielberg’s direction and the masterful acting of Daniel Day-Lewis than with Lincoln himself, arguably the central personality in American history — and mythology.
But few reviewers (with the two exceptions below) have delved enough into the mythic issues that move our emotions so deeply. After all, from the opening scenes to the unsurprising ending, we ask: why did it all have to be that way? Why him? What if it had gone differently? Who are we as a people to have this story? Is there any purpose to our national propensity toward violence? Why am I weeping?
An excerpt from my book offers some of the mythic issues:
Three factors made the war so terribly destructive. War became impersonal and industrialized, with the objective of maximizing the killing. But even though technology had changed things irrevocably, tactics didn’t change; old men sent young men marching in closed ranks against massed cannonry and repeating rifles. Six hundred thousand died and 500,000 were wounded, in a country of thirty million. One-fifth of the South’s adult white male population perished.
The second factor was derived from the images each side projected upon the other, much of which came from the differing forms of racism they practiced. Northerners demonized the South as backwards, claimed moral superiority and rationalized their own aversive discrimination with a moralistic crusade. They did this in part by burying their own complicity in slavery…
Southerners could deny the sexual license with black women that they had always assumed with fantasies of preserving a “way of life.” A hundred and fifty years later, we wonder why several hundred thousand dirt-poor whites who couldn’t afford to own slaves defended this cause so savagely. We must conclude that they fought not to save slavery (which was against their own economic interests), but to perpetuate white privilege. It was all they had.
Both sides shared a third factor. Two centuries of racialized Indian conflict and the resultant literature had so justified violence in the national mind as to make the adversary, any adversary, so alien, so Other, as to be inhuman. By 1860, argues Richard Slotkin, a new norm had been established. Americans would see all future conflicts, even against other white nations, as wars of annihilation.
The war pitted the urban children of the Puritans against the rural children of the Opportunists, with their original roles somewhat reversed. By 1860, religion in the north was being overshadowed by the Industrial Revolution, while fundamentalism was rising in the South as an aspect of racial domination. Fratricide perfectly describes the impact of the war upon the American soul, which more than that of any other nation is split against itself. The word evokes such emotion precisely because Americans still hope to heal that split in the psyche. Contemporary battle re-enactments express this longing.
Note: Some historians have recently increased their estimate of the war’s dead from 600,000 to 750,000.
And into this framework, writes David Denby of Lincoln, “the filmmakers folded a portrait of an unhappy, torn-apart family, a kind of metaphor for the nation caught up in civil war.”
But what about Lincoln himself? William Herndon, who was Lincoln’s law partner, wrote:
For fifty years God rolled Abraham Lincoln through his fiery furnace. He did it to try Abraham and to purify him for his purposes. This made Mr. Lincoln humble, tender, forbearing, sympathetic to suffering, kind, sensitive, tolerant; broadening, deepening and widening his whole nature; making him the noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ…I believe that Lincoln was God’s chosen one.
Denby writes that “Herndon’s was not an uncommon way of speaking about Lincoln — not then, not now…But the mature Lincoln is almost unimaginable; he’s myth and shadow, a figure fogged by veneration, by love mixed with incomprehension.”
Now we’re approaching the depths of this story. Ira Chernus writes,
What places Lincoln above all presidents in our national memory is his image as The Great Emancipator, a larger-than-life man led by a crystal clear and unwavering moral vision on the transcendent moral issue of American history. In mythic terms, the mere fact that America could produce such a leader is powerful evidence of a clear moral vision at the heart of America, a vision that all Americans can draw from and thus share in, at least vicariously…Since national memory is mythic and need not be checked by facts, that path can always appear to aim at, and be guided by, America’s crystal clear and unwavering moral vision…
Again from my book:
Western tales offered the original American superhero, a mysterious outsider who intervened, redeemed captives, destroyed evildoers, cleansed the wilderness and violently regenerated the community. This figure combined Jesus, willing to sacrifice himself for us, and Jehovah, furiously condemning the unrighteous…And, like Dionysus, he straddled the boundaries between civilization and savagery, arriving out of nowhere and disappearing when his work was finished.
In two centuries of popular literature, the enigmatic stranger, in literally thousands of incarnations, intervened at the last moment to save the day. Redemption through violence – righteous, merciless confrontation with the Other – became America’s fundamental narrative. Invested with the power and unexamined depth of myth, the lone, uncompromisingly violent crusader inhabits the very center of the American character.
The violence of his character is part of God’s plan. The film acknowledges (and most of the mythographers ignore) that Lincoln made the terrible choice of prolonging the trauma of the war in order to end slavery forever.
Many Americans see our history as a morality tale because it is so deeply impacted by Biblical myth. As I wrote in a recent blog, the Puritans saw themselves as new Israelites escaping the Pharaohs (England) for the New Jerusalem (America) to confront the evil Philistines (Native Americans). This mythic substrate still allows us to rationalize our imperial wars with the belief (shared by liberals nearly as much as by conservatives) that America has been ordained by God to bring freedom to the entire world.
Denby offers an Old Testament reference: the sequence in which Lincoln talks of his “awesome power,” and demands that his aides get the last two votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. “It’s Lincoln’s only moment of majesty in office…Any thought of Jesus disappears. This is an Old Testament figure, wrathful and demanding.”
Many African-Americans conflated the image of Lincoln the Emancipator with that of the Biblical Moses.
But there’s a deeper Old Testament dimension, writes Chernus, which Spielberg spotlights by closing the film with a flashback to the second inaugural address: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Both the “offense” of slavery and “this mighty scourge of war” to punish that offense may be among those purposes.
The New Testament is a relevant prototype for a story about God’s martyred chosen one. But since the film is really about a nation’s memory, the Old Testament is the more relevant prototype. The Old is the story of a whole nation’s historical struggles with offense and punishment, embedded in a thick web of political complexities, but all guided by an omnipotent moral hand toward a transcendent goal.
Seen through the lens of New Testament myth, Lincoln had to be martyred for having cleansed his people of the sin of slavery. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a profoundly elegiac meditation on our national character.
But we are Americans, and we have covered over Biblical myth with our own narratives. Seeing the story through the myth of American Innocence, we are almost compelled to ignore the next 150 years of history. America is reunited, Black people and women are accepted as full participants in society and (Barack Obama, we are told, is proof) we now inhabit a “post-racial” world. Because the Redeemer was sacrificed, we can still look forward to a happy ending.
All this, of course, ignores the mythic elephant in the room: What about the South?
The mythographers would like us to believe that the whole story is about how the North (symbolized by Lincoln) overcame America’s original sin and fatal flaw of slavery. But the South was and is as much a fundamental part of this story, not an external evil. And by the end of Reconstruction there was no essential difference: all of us (white males) were Americans.
For Black people (it would be nearly a century before they would call themselves African-Americans), the war never really ended.
And now, in the age of Trump, if we are honest with ourselves, we’d have to at least consider this question: Did the South win the Civil War?