Lincoln in America’s cultural memory

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Professor Bush on fact and fiction in Spielberg film

With two films about him released in 2012 and a documentary television series planned for 2013, Abraham Lincoln has become one of the more unlikely pop culture stories of 2012. Yet, the iconic bearded image of the so-called “honest” man donning his large top hat has scarcely left the American cultural memory.

On Feb. 22, SLU’s English department will host a discussion about the lasting legacy of The Great Emancipator (and perhaps solve, once and for all, whether our 16th president did, in fact, hunt vampires).

Hal Bush will lead a conversation entitled “Lincoln, Gettysburg and Hollywood: Cultural Memory According to Spielberg,” at 3 p.m. in Xavier Hall Room G8. The event marks the first in a planned bi-semesterly series sponsored by the Department of English entitled “English in the World.”

A committee of English professors and undergraduate majors envisioned “English in the World” as an opportunity to explore how the study of literature converses with contemporary issues and popular culture. Organized by Saher Alam, with the help of Ellen Crowell, “English in the World” is aimed at undergraduates and geared toward illuminating how English studies can provide the tools and language with which to engage our culture.

Bush, a professor of English who specializes in American Cultural Studies and 19th Century American Literature, has studied and written on Lincoln extensively.

“It’s hard to argue with [Lincoln] being one of the most important Americans at one of the most important moments in America. All Americans really need to have a fuller experience of what it is we think is so great about Lincoln,” Bush said.

Bush believes part of the importance and power of the film is that it offers a complex look at “a personality.” That, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ “uncanny” portrayal of Lincoln, which Bush said highlights how “compassionate” and “sympathetic” Lincoln was. Both sides of Lincoln, his work as a politician and his warmth as a human, are on display in the film.

“He was a very cagey politician, and he know how to work people,” Bush said. “But, on the other hand, the honest Abe that comes out in the picture is the authentic, real guy who would put his hand on a young guy’s shoulder or tell racy jokes.”

Bush and other Lincoln scholars praise the film for its historical portrayals and for the extensive research that Day-Lewis, Spielberg and scribe Tony Kushner put into accurately representing the details.

Kushner visited SLU in October of 2012 to receive the St. Louis Literary Award. He talked with fondness about his “Lincoln” project, saying that he spent seven years conducting research and compiling a massive screenplay.

The film places great weight and importance on the words of Lincoln. Bush noted a particular scene in which three soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln. Bush believes this scene underscores the importance and relevance of Lincoln’s words and how they have formed his cultural legacy, an idea that at is at core of Bush’s 2011 book “Lincoln in His Own Time.”

“I can’t think of too many historical films that are this important and this valuable…ever,” Bush said.