• Back when I was flogging my H.L. Mencken biography on the book-tour circuit, people were always asking me if I thought there were any contemporary writers who were comparable in quality to Mencken, and I always gave the same answer: Tom Wolfe and Andrew Ferguson. Wolfe can take care of himself, but if I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24). He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. Alas, he labors in the time-gobbling vineyards of weekly journalism, and his only previous book, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces (1996), was a collection of his wonderful magazine essays. Now he’s followed up that debut with a full-fledged book, and it is, not at all surprisingly, even better.
Land of Lincoln is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln, or a scholarly monograph on some aspect or other of Lincoln’s life and thought. It is, rather, a kind of intellectual travel book, an account of Ferguson’s visits to Lincoln-related sites and events across America, in the course of which he meets a wildly diverse assortment of Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters, most of them eccentric in degrees varying from mildly aberrant to near-pathological. (Did you know that there’s an annual convention of Lincoln impersonators?) Everything he sees and everyone he encounters along the way is described with an engaging combination of dry, sly wit and what can only be described as empathy, for Ferguson is himself a recovering Lincoln buff who spent much of his Illinois childhood in the grip of a historical obsession:
I cleared my schedule—not so hard to do when you’re ten—whenever Abe Lincoln in Illinois or Young Mr. Lincoln was to show up on TV. My favorite book was a photographic album as thick and heavy as a plank of oak, called Lincoln in Every Known Pose. . . . Photographs of Lincoln hung on the walls of my bedroom. Sometimes at night, wakened by a bad dream, I’d rise from my bed and go to my desk and pull from the center drawer a sheaf of papers written in Lincoln’s own hand. I’d bought a packet of these yellowed, crinkly reproductions, reeking of the rust-colored dye that was meant to make them look antique, at a cavernous gift shop near his birthplace. The words carried the force of an incantation—entrancing, if not, to me, thoroughly comprehensible.
As always with Ferguson, his purpose in introducing us to the shadowland of Lincoln buffery is to make a deeply serious point about postmodern American life:
Lincoln hasn’t been forgotten, but he’s shrunk. From the enormous figure of the past he’s been reduced to a hobbyist’s eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self-selected subculture, like quilting or Irish step dancing. He has been detached from the national patrimony, if we can be said to have a national patrimony any longer. He is no longer a common possession. That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln, seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.
This is a very powerful theme, and though Ferguson states and varies it with the lightest of touches in Land of Lincoln, you are never in doubt of his underlying purpose. He visits Springfield’s Disney-style Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and captures its cheery essence in a single devastating sentence: “Cute and chilling and sad and chipper—and fun!—and never, not for a moment, more realistic than an animated movie.” He attends a workshop for businessmen who long to learn how to run their corporations along Lincolnian lines and imagines how the Gettysburg Address might have been reconceived as a PowerPoint presentation (“Key Proposition: Everybody Equal”). It’s all laughable, but the joke, we know, is on us, and on America as well.
“I’m just a journalist, not a scholar,” Ferguson says at book’s end. True enough, but journalism like Land of Lincoln beats most scholarship hollow. John Coltrane once said of Stan Getz, “We’d all play like that . . . if we could.” I wish I could write like Andrew Ferguson, but at least I can read him, as can you. Do so.