Eric Foner on Lincoln (the Movie)

CNN recently aired this interview with Eric Foner on Lincoln … be patient if a long ad precedes it.

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20 thoughts on “Eric Foner on Lincoln (the Movie)

  1. His point is well taken, but the intent was to focus on one part of Lincoln’s life, not to tell the full story of freedom for enslaved people or to tell the full story of Lincoln’s life. I think it did a great job. By focusing on the period between Lincoln’s election and the passage of the 13th Amendment, I think the filmmakers set themselves up for success by being able to give us a very rich story. Think of the comparison between Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” focus on the three days of Gettysburg and Jeff Shaara’s “Gods and Generals” focus on the three years before Gettysburg. The former was a much better story than the latter because the latter, both book and movie, had to have so much in it that it became disjointed.

    • The former was a much better story than the latter because the latter, both book and movie, had to have so much in it that it became disjointed.

      and also because the former was written by the father and the latter by his banality-meister son.

  2. tried to watch this, but there is some glitch. Download stops.

    I think the film is brilliant, would love to hear what Foner has to say.

  3. The link works fine. Movies are not and cannot be historical documentaries any more than historical novels are history. Artistic license must be taken to sustain interest and continuity and to amplify the theme being presented. Hopefully this movie accomplishes that.

  4. As I always like to say about the movie “Gettysburg!” It was a masterful telling of the book “The Killer Angels” but it was not the story of the Battle of Gettysburg.

    Believe we will see the same here.

  5. I’m not naive enough to believe Hollywood will ever do anything with complete historical accuracy. But, I’m sure there are many a people who will take as the truth anything they see or read, so I understand his point and wanting to clear the air on a subject about which he is so passionate.
    I thought the movie was phenomenal and both Daniel Day Lewis and Billy Bob Thornton gave amazing performances. I was extremely pleased that so many people turned out to see a historical drama, and not one with a bunch of battle scenes and bloody special effects. There was applause at the end, and many teary eyes in the house.

  6. Foner’s points (I have seen the movie) are two fold.

    1) The implications in the movie that passage of the 13th amendment AT THAT MOMENT were in the hands of a few and critical is not true. Slavery was ending in many ways and was in his view a “:Fait a complet”.

    2) The portrait of Lincoln as a primary mover of the amendment, as its moral center, is not true either. To his credit, Lincoln grew with the times and a more epic, accurate portrayal of slavery’s end with Lincoln as a spoke of the wheel and not its center would be truly enlightening.

    But neither America nor Spielberg is capable of creating or receiving such an endeavor. Spielberg struggles with shadow and nuance, so his film falls on the side of the fault line of the Lincoln we see in hindsight, not the man of his times.

    Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie, it is a leap forward for most Americans in its attempt at political and life experience realism, but historically falls prey to the need to cling to myth.

    Its a good start, a well crafted film, but the real story seems to me far more fascinating, yet beyond the reach of the American psyche.

    Lincoln had real greatness, but he had to grow into it and his stance on slavery was not that of the leader.

    I would recommend Oliver Stone’s American History series now on Showtime for a real look at WWII and post war events with no fawning. Very raw but compelling. Lincoln can’t get there.

    But worth seeing.

  7. I have always respected Eric Foner as a first class American historian. I study his writings and recommend them to my friends.

    However, with all the debate about the Lincoln movie many historians including Foner miss an important point. It’s a movie not a PhD dissertation. It blends fact with fiction to create a story. There is and continues to be a large disconnect between academia and the general population.

    Many historians look down their noses at non-professionals as being not worthy/able to participate in history in any meaningful way. They miss a golden opportunity to bring average people into the fascinating stories that make our history.

    I believe there is almost an innate interest on the part of most people to know more about history.
    Movies such as Lincoln point this out quite clearly. Look at the debate this has created. How many thousands of people have seen this movie and learned something about Lincoln and our country’s history that they didn’t know before and may never have been exposed to without it. The sales of Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” have increased over the Christmas season. How many people will read this superlative work if they hadn’t been exposed to the movie?

    If professional historians could only realize there are opportunities to be realized outside the ivory tower to help many gain a better understanding of their country’s story. Stop whining, and complaining because every finite point cannot be documented or may be not exactly historical accurate and go share your knowledge and passion in the service of others.

    • I appreciate your reply and believe there is much truth to what you say. I believe this situation is a “both and” rather than an “either or”.

      I am a professional storyteller and semi archivist who is deeply concerned with myth and archetype. When I saw Lincoln I found it deeply engrossing, moving and the movement toward historical realism a very authentic step in a good direction as I have had an interest in Lincoln all my life.

      My sadness comes at the profound limitations of the American people to deal in a very real way with our history, and hence who we are. Present day calls of “Socialism” and “No big government” stem from the same well spring of ignorance that informs our telling of the past.

      On a more strident essay (http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/30/paternalism-and-ass-covering-in-spielbergs-lincoln/) than Foner the author made this point,

      “From what I have observed on the Internet, Kushner’s defenders have begun to rally around a talking point, namely that he chose to tell a story about the passage of legislation that did not directly involve Blacks. Since they were not members of the House of Representatives, who could blame him or Spielberg for leaving them out? To fully comprehend how ludicrous this argument is, we can move forward in history to imagine a film about LBJ’s pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that included not a single important Black civil rights leader: no Martin Luther King Jr., no Bayard Rustin, no Stokely Carmichael, no Andrew Young. People would scream bloody murder. How could you leave them out?

      It is easier for Kushner to get away with this sleight of hand by referring to historical events a century earlier about which Americans have little knowledge. Most assume that Lincoln “freed the slaves” and know nothing about the likes of Frederick Douglass. If you refer to a “Radical Republican”, the average American of today would think you were referring to Rush Limbaugh rather than Thaddeus Stevens.”

      People are quite unaware that in in 1861 Lincoln fought harder for an amendment that PASSED both houses to enshrine slavery forever in the Constitution legitimately. Ironically it was not submitted to the states due to secession.

      This is not to denigrate Lincoln who I believe in many respects was a truly great man, who evolved but also had his limitations as a man of his times. It is telling the Frederick Douglas did NOT support Lincoln’s reelection (he was for Fremont initially) until late in the campaign. Douglas grew to admire Lincoln but it took time.

      MY comments were meant to balance the tendency of most Americans, and Spielberg’s mawkish tendencies to avoid great depth in pointing out what this country is ready for and what it is not, both in its present day self evaluation and is understanding or lack thereof or its history.

      History is complex. Thus Lincoln was willing to sell the slaves out for much of the war for the sake of Union, which was his passion. I believe his moves were 70% practical and maybe 30% moral but such a portrait of complexity and nuance would be anathema to most Americans. Just as Obama for many might be our best hope, yet is a monster and murderer in his drone and assassination programs.

      Ask most Americans who defeated Germany in WWII? They will say we did, which is nonsense. The Russians, who faced 200 German divisions while we faced 10 and lost 20 million people to our 500,000 defeated the powerful German war machine at a cost we can’t imagine.

      But Spielberg didn’t make that movie nor could he and most Americans wouldn’t watch it. He made “Saving Private Ryan” instead. And as is Spielberg’s wont, it fell into the trap of myth, semi fantasy and sentimentality despite its very raw beginning. As Wilson thought “Birth of a Nation” was a great retelling of history. A great film it was, despite the poison of racist bile, which Griffith himself was blind to. History it was not

      That was my point. And I think it is beyond nit picking of academics. It goes to the heart of who we are as a people and the shallowness of our national character.

      Is there movement in Lincoln toward a greater realism? As you pointed out, probably. is this movement a positive step? Most likely.

      But let us not fool ourselves, OK?

      • MY bad. Lincoln did not fight for the Corwin amendment of 1861. However he did not oppose it and was willing to let it be ratified.

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