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Wednesday, July 16, 2008 05:30 am

Rousing the Lincoln in you

Andrew Ferguson takes a fresh look at a familiar icon

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Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America By Andrew Ferguson, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007, 288 pages, $24 (paperback $14)

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Andrew Ferguson's personal saga tracing the Lincoln industry and influence began when he was a kid, visiting New Salem and other Lincoln shrines (thus called until recently) with his family, following the Lincoln Heritage Trail. My brother-in-law, with Wisconsin Public Radio, read Land of Lincoln over the air and pressed it on me: "Jack, you gotta read this!" I did and at many passages nearly fell out of bed laughing. About the statue before the tomb: "It was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, the lunatic who got the idea of rappelling across the face of a limestone bluff in South Dakota, dynamiting as he went, until it looked like four presidents — George, Thomas, Theodore, and Abraham, snuggling cheek to cheek like a group of high schoolers in a photo booth." I was a grade-school kid when that desecration was happening; we contributed our pennies to the glorious project.

In Springfield, I understand, the book ruffled some feathers, and Ferguson joked that he was surprised to be allowed back in. Yes, parts may seem flip, shallow, not fully informed — but there is considerably more here to admire than to denigrate. A nonincendiary chapter, "A Sea of Lincolns," recounts the author's visit to Santa Claus, Ind., where he walks into a room filled with 40 men dressed exactly like Lincoln. This is the annual convention of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, a designation impersonators prefer. Why Santa Claus? It's in the heart of Spencer County, where Abe spent his formative years, and so has deep resonance. Begun in 1990 by a trio of interpreters, the ALP now has some 250 members from nearly 40 states. About 175 work as Abe; another 40 impersonate Mary, usually teamed with an Abe. About a third, often not looking very Abe-like, eke out a modest living; the rest moonlight, speaking at schools, or your organization or event. I myself was inexplicably photographed with one, at an Illinois State Museum book fair. Last year I spotted one crossing Capitol and Fifth, a somber top-hatted figure amid a surge of colorful youngsters. But it's a hard life: One spends much time on the road, sometimes sleeps in one's car, uses perseverance and ingenuity to book gigs. Why do they do it? One of the group's founders described it as an inner drive — for him and many of the others a spiritual mission, much as some are called to the ministry, in this case to keep the spirit of Abraham Lincoln alive. And the conference dealt with how to do that — how to stress the message, create or tap into a market, project the image. The organization's motto is "Would I Might Rouse the Lincoln in You All." That quote from our own Vachel Lindsay explains it.

I expected another chapter to shred the idea of a seminar for middle-management businessmen, Tigrett Corp.'s workshop in Gettysburg titled "Lessons from Lincoln" — Lincoln, who was an abysmal failure as a businessman! It did rip into PowerPoint and many aspects of prevalent workshop idiocies, but by the end of the chapter I was filled with admiration for the couple who'd conceived and run the seminar, gently and intelligently, and moved by what it was they were really trying to teach their participants. I won't give this chapter away, but know that Lincoln fits.

There's much more. Solid research and scholarship — add footwork — is woven with aspects of the Lincoln industry, books you've never heard of but will now want to find, facts and stories you never knew, places you'll want to go. For those of us "marinated" in Lincoln, jaded by living the heart of Lincoln country, here's a book to open our eyes and hearts. Ferguson is smashingly, often scathingly, funny — but he can turn the coin in an instant. Overall he writes humanely, with respect and with generosity of spirit. He's an unabashed Lincoln buff. And I dare anyone to come away from reading the book's postscript (but you must read the previous chapter first) without a catch in your throat, and a renewed vision of what Lincoln means to you, our country, and the world.

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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