February 12, 2009, marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. To commemorate the anniversary, publishers are releasing a greater than normal amount of books about our 16th President. One of the best new titles is Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America by Andrew Ferguson. As with many kids, Lincoln was one of Ferguson’s childhood heroes, but it was not a passion he continued as an adult. Often funny, and frequently insightful, Land of Lincoln is a wonderful read about one man’s journey to rediscover the magic of Lincoln.
Lincoln studies are never far from controversy. Thus, the book begins with a chapter on Lincoln Haters, many of whom protested the erection of a statue commemorating Lincoln’s 1865 visit to Richmond, the capital of the former Confederacy. Ferguson also devotes chapters to the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Lincoln collectors, a group of Lincoln impersonators, and a workshop promoting Lincoln as inspiration for business leadership.
Ferguson’s most important theme is how history must be a sensory and emotional experience. Despite what critics say, this does not have to be done at the expense of high interpretative standards. Interactive displays at the new Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum take visitors into Lincoln’s world without sacrificing historical accuracy and scholarship.
The most interesting part of the book is Ferguson’s account of a family road trip devoted to Lincoln sites. Having made a similar trip as a child with his parents forty years earlier, Ferguson eagerly wanted to rekindle memories of his youth. Much to his dismay, many of those sites have changed. He was most disappointed with the professionalism of the National Park Service and felt their preservation efforts made Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois too sterile. Many of his criticisms are valid, and NPS interpretative efforts have generated tremendous controversy around the country. But his attacks on the Park Service prevent Ferguson from seeing his own contradictions. Although, greatly impressed by the film which greets visitors at the Presidential Library, Ferguson thinks the Park Service production is “keeping with the assumption that no historical sight can be enjoyed by people who haven’t seen a video of what they are about to enjoy. Just enjoying it, without preconditioning, is very pre-Nixon administration.” To his credit, Ferguson finally admits he was looking for the places of his childhood, not necessarily the places where Lincoln lived and worked.
These minor criticisms do not change the fact that Ferguson has written an excellent book, and considering the amount of competition, a truly unique Lincoln book.
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