Title Reviewed:
Abraham Lincoln in Print and Photograph: A Picture History from the Lilly Library

Author Reviewed:
Cecil K. Byrd; Ward W. Moore

Michael Fellman


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 94, Issue 3, pp 266-267

Article Type:
Book Review

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Abraham Lincoln in Print and Photograph: A Picture History from the Lilly Library. Edited by Cecil K. Byrd and Ward W. Moore. (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997. Pp. vii, 118. Illustrations, index. Paperbound, $13.95.)

Drat that Ken Burns. Ever since his series, American Civil War publications, always more prolix and profitable than profound, have mushroomed exponentially. Gresham understood the likely results, and, alas, this book is one more proof of his law.

As the American Christ, Lincoln is the Great Icon, and this volume provides many familiar portraits of him, along with cartoons, photographs of famous documents, and pictures of his friends, enemies, assassins, and children, as well as several takes of the always unattractive Mary Todd Lincoln. Interestingly enough, the earliest known photograph of Lincoln, included here, was taken in 1846, and the next came in 1857. One therefore never sees the youthful man, although the full gallery of images from the last eight years of his life is, of course, a fair representation of Lincoln's meteoric rise to fame.

Many of Lincoln's portraits show the ravages of depression. Indeed he was at times quite gaunt, an indication, perhaps, that during his deeper bouts of what he called the "hypo," and described as a helpless, desperate condition, he could not eat. None of Lincoln's countervailing humor shines through the photographs, for which Lincoln, in common with all sitters of his day, were trained to sit motionless and be solemn.

Cecil K. Byrd and Ward W. Moore do not discuss states of mind or cultural styles of presentation of self, nor do they analyze the photographers whose work they reproduce, nor the technology of their medium. Instead they present a potted biography of Lincoln in pictures and captions that repeats what readers are likely to know while omitting discussion of new ways of looking at history through photographs, an approach quite well developed by now in the wider historical profession. In this unannotated volume the editors cite none of the work being done in the cultural history written about such images. With considerable innocence they use photographs of monuments designed well after Lincoln's death to depict the historical Lincoln, especially during his youthful, unphotographed years. Although they might have discussed such monuments as an historical genre in themselves, they tend to take artists' imagined images of the young Lincoln as the equivalent of documents, which they are not.

Neither is the book handsome. The cover is most unattractive and the layout pedestrian, facts that make this book, if inexpensive, not really suitable for the coffee table. In themselves some of the photographs, especially of rarely seen minor characters, are quite fascinating, and Lincoln's visage is always riveting. This reviewer can never decide if he was truly ugly or deeply handsome, but in either event one can see in his face the ravages his office and the war brought him. Some physicians have also seen in these photographs the effects of Marfan Syndrome, which might have brought him to a premature death had John Wilkes Booth missed his mark.

For a fuller pictorial depiction of Lincoln one should consult Lincoln in Photographs (1963) by Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf. For an inexpensive place to begin, however, this volume fits the bill.

MICHAEL FELLMAN is professor of history, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman (1995).

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.