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Author Interview

The Lincoln Engima

Gabor S. Boritt, Editor
The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon
Oxford University Press, February 2001
324 pages, $30

When you open this book, you will find an intriguing collection of essays from various writers designed to shed light on this elusive man's life, such as his marriage, views of emancipation, and ways he interpreted the Constitution. Another section gives you illustrations of how Lincoln is seen today through various art forms. While on a trip through eastern Lincoln country in May 2001, we stopped by the editor's office to offer you his firsthand impressions of the book.

Gabor Boritt is well known in Lincoln and Civil War circles as an author and editor of Civil War books. He also is former Professor of Civil War Studies and Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Civil War Institute, a perennially popular educational program, holds a public session every summer near the anniversary of the great battle (late June-early July). Professor Boritt also helped launch the Gettysburg Semester, an intensive study of the Civil War for college students.

ALO: Please give us some background on your book.

Gabor Boritt: Well, we, Tina, Diane, Rosemary, Linda and myself, run the Civil War Institute. The goal is to get good scholarship to the general public. We hold an annual session which about 325 people attend, with a waiting list of about 50 to 100 people. We have talked about expanding it but none of us are convinced we ought to do it. You lose something. You can't expand it to a thousand people. It would be a different institution.

The idea behind The Lincoln Engima was to take the finest scholars you have and make them attempt to speak to the public. I organized a conference in the 1980s and a book came out of that as well (The Historian's Lincoln). That basically summed up the past work in the Lincoln field. In the 1970s and the 1980s the Lincoln field was rather thin. I have a theory about it but that's all it is. I think the Vietnam war made America turn in on itself and it turned on Lincoln too ... Lincoln being a symbol of the country, and at least from my perspective, the best of the country. The 1990s produced a renaissance in Lincoln studies.

Why things change, who knows? We did our small part. We started the The Lincoln Prize. That's a huge prize; it's not for Lincoln alone, but all things being equal, if you work on Lincoln you have an advantage. A number of Lincoln people have won it, among them Phillip Paludan, William Harris, Doug Wilson and Allen Guelzo. At any rate, the '90s changed things. The '90s produced lots of interesting people and interesting books. If you follow my previous ideas it's almost as if the United States was coming back to herself again. It gained more self respect, for one thing.

I'm a native of Hungary, born during the Second World War. I left Hungary in 1956. I've been to Vietnam twice. I know war ... I don't like it but it doesn't mean it's not important. When I look on the United States, I look on it in terms of the globe. However much is wrong with this country, and there's plenty than can be fixed to make it better, it is still, well, a light to the world. So I never had this discouragement that so many Americans had.

ALO: How did you decide to produce the book?

Gabor Boritt: It was the beginning of a new millennium and time to take up where The Historian's Lincoln left off. The writers produced the essays specifically on the topics that I requested. For example, Doug Wilson talks about the young man Lincoln, and Jean Baker about the Lincoln marriage. The Lincoln marriage, by the way, is one of the most controversial topics in the Lincoln field today. Jean brings a woman's perspective to the subject.

Another contributor, David Donald, compares Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. You may or may not agree with his conclusions because he maintains that Davis may have had more regard for civil liberties than Lincoln. On different topic, Allen Guelzo, who is an intellectual historian, talks about Lincoln and the Constitution. Bill Harris takes a sharp new look at Lincoln's hopes for the country after Appomattox and a bright new scholar, Gerald Prokopowicz looks at Lincoln's military mind. My own essay on colonization, I think, clarifies some things during this time when some people are accusing Lincoln of racism.

As a fine conclusion to the book, Bob Bruce talks about how Lincoln looked at death. This chapter originally came from a lecture he gave at Fort Wayne (Indiana) years ago. He rewrote it for the Civil War Institute and the book. Bob was my teacher and mentor in Boston when I was in graduate school. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the writer and television commentator, loved this chapter. She tracked down Bob in Washington state, after he moved from New England, just to thank him for it. Bob is a native of New England -- there had been a tradition of about 250 years of Bruces living there. Author Jacques Barzun also thought it was the best piece in the book.

Oxford summed up the book this way: "Who was he, this enigma? People ask persistent questions and answers take both boldness and great care. Were Mary and Abraham happily married? Or did they live in barely bearable discord? Was he straight or gay? Racist or emancipator? A searcher for identify and purpose or one deeply depressed, even on the verge of madness? Military genius or daydreamer about field command? Defender of the Constitution or almost a dictator? Maker of peace or demanding unconditional surrender? What did he believe? Was there life after death? Modern historians speak in this book and in the end so do modern artists: Picasso and company."

ALO: Do you think Lincoln will remain a mystery?

Gabor Boritt: Yes, but The Lincoln Enigma lifts a part of the veil. It sold out in four weeks but the next printing is coming.

ALO: Where can readers obtain your book?

Gabor Boritt: Oxford likes to say at the "better bookstores" anywhere in the U.S. and all over the globe. Autographed copies can be obtained from Gallery 30 in Gettysburg.

Related Books by Gabor Boritt

  • Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994
  • Lincoln the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures. Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Why the Confederacy Lost. Oxford University Press, 1993

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