Lincoln As You’ve Never Seen Him

February 8, 2022

"Lincoln’s Dilemma," a four-part Apple TV+ documentary, is based on Professor David Reynolds’ book "Abe."

Lincoln's Dilemma
"Lincoln’s Dilemma," a four-part Apple TV+ documentary, is based on Professor David Reynolds’ book "Abe."
Any by David S. Reynolds

When it appeared in 2020, critics praised Distinguished Professor David S. Reynolds’ (English, HistoryComparative Literature, and Biography and Memoir) biography of Abraham Lincoln for its brilliance and originality. In The Wall Street Journal, historian Gordon S. Wood called Abe: Abraham Lincoln and His Times “a marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historic fullness.” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick suggested that “even readers long marinated in the Lincoln literature will find revelation in the way Abe re-situates familiar episodes.” The book was selected as among the best books of the year by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and Kirkus Reviews. It won the prestigious Lincoln Prize and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award.

Now, Apple TV+ has adapted it for television. Lighting up screens on February 18, Lincoln’s Dilemma, a new, four-part documentary series, features insights from a diverse range of journalists, educators, and Lincoln scholars, as well as rare archival material. Narrated by Jeffrey Wright, the show features the voices of Leslie Odom Jr. (of Hamiltonfame) as Frederick Douglass and Bill Camp (Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave) as Abraham Lincoln.

Reynolds — who is the author or editor of 16 books, including his seminal Walt Whitman biography, Walt Whitman's America, winner of the Bancroft Prize — was closely involved with the development of the series. We caught up with him recently to ask him about that process — and about Lincoln’s appraisal of public opinion and popular culture, his relationships with Black leaders of his time, and the ways in which narratives of the past might shed light on the complexities of the present.

How did this series come about? What was your involvement in its development?

I had spent six years working on my Lincoln biography and had completed my manuscript when in late 2019, Richard Plepler, the former boss at HBO, reached me through a mutual contact. Richard had just left HBO for Apple TV+, which had offered him a position to develop miniseries and films. At HBO he had greenlighted many projects, including Game of Thrones, Veep, and Boardwalk Empire as well as historical documentaries. He had long wanted to do a docuseries on Lincoln. He heard that I had just completed a book on Lincoln to be published by the Penguin Press, and he asked to see my manuscript. He read it, loved it, and then sent it to the Kunhardts, a well-known family of Lincoln scholars and collectors. They encouraged Richard to take the book on, and he did so. It was the first book he optioned in his new position at Apple.

Peter Kunhardt Jr., who is not only a Lincoln expert but also a filmmaker, oversaw the transformation of my book into the four-part miniseries. I gave input to Peter and his team as they put together the docuseries, which took about a year and a half to make. The series includes interviews about Lincoln with a good number of scholars, including me, and striking images from the Civil War, especially ones related to African Americans and slavery. The film catches the spirit of my book by showing Lincoln’s hatred of slavery along with his public caution on it because of political demands and the fragility of the nation during the Civil War.

You depict Lincoln as having close relationships with Black leaders of the time while also keeping a more moderate public face. How did Frederick Douglass and other Black leaders react to that?

Lincoln was a canny politician trying to win the votes of a northern electorate that was largely racist, even when it was anti-slavery. He compared himself, and was compared by others, to Charles Blondin, a famous acrobat who crossed Niagara Falls many times on a tightrope. To win public opinion, Lincoln had to stay balanced on his political tightrope or else he wouldn’t be elected or be able to hold the North together during the Civil War. There were a few times when he had to lean publicly to the right, in order to keep himself and the nation in balance. But he pressed inexorably for emancipation and, in the end, he became the first president to advocate openly for voting rights for African Americans. Some Black leaders, like Frederick Douglass, at first doubted his commitment to ending slavery. But after meeting with Lincoln in the White House and observing his presidency, Douglass said that Lincoln seemed dull, slow, lethargic on slavery but in fact was swift, zealous, and radical, given the temper at the time. Douglass said that in person Lincoln was the least racist white person he had ever met, an opinion shared by other African Americans who met Lincoln, including Sojourner Truth and Martin Delany.

What does Lincoln’s duality on slavery say about his understanding of the power of public image? Does this relate to his ability to read the public, or possibly to manipulate the public?

Lincoln said that public opinion in America was more powerful than laws. In addition to political genius, Lincoln possessed a down-home, folksy quality that was captured in his nickname, Abe. Actually, he didn’t like the Abe moniker, but he said that without it he wouldn’t have been elected president. To the masses, he was Honest Abe, Old Abe, Uncle Abe, Abe the Illinois Rail Splitter. The newspapers of the time were filled with illustrations of Abe in shirtsleeves and rough pants as he swung an ax and split rails — the very image of the hardy common man and woodsman, reflecting his frontier childhood. Also, Lincoln spent many hours every week admitting ordinary people into his White House office. When his secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay objected to the practice, he explained that these personal encounters with average folks were his “public opinion baths.”

You describe how Lincoln tapped into aspects of popular culture to unite the country. Is that possible today?

It would be difficult for anyone in our time — or any time — to have the extraordinary cultural knowledge that Lincoln had. His contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Lincoln, alone among the world’s great heroes, spanned the entire range of culture, from high to low, until, in Emerson’s words, the very dogs believed in him. Although he had had less than a year of education — sporadically in log cabin schools on the frontier — he read so voraciously that he could recite poems by Robert Burns, Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others. His favorite was Shakespeare. During his presidency, he would recite Shakespearean passages spontaneously, not to show off but because they were deeply meaningful to him. Poetry for him channeled and focused emotion and thought, just as he channeled the meaning of America in classic speeches like the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, which are like prose poems because they are terse, pithy, and resonant. He attended the opera, but he especially loved popular songs, some of them sappy and others funny or satirical. He could also recite pages from the shocking popular humorists of the day, especially Petroleum Nasby, who used what we would call Saturday Night Live caricature to expose the racism of northern proslavery Copperheads. This humor was so widely read that some people said Nasby contributed strongly to the fall of slavery.

What do you hope the audience will learn about Lincoln?

Readers of my book will discover just how all-embracing Lincoln was; to use Walt Whitman’s phrase, he contained multitudes. Lincoln’s Dilemma, the docuseries based on my book, focuses on his strategies as a master politician in dealing with the problems of slavery and race. The Kunhardt team did a wonderful job of using period images and special effects to bring Lincoln alive in the context of slavery and the Civil War. The narration by Jeffrey Wright is moving, as are the voiceovers by Bill Camp and Leslie Odom Jr. The documentary provides a real immersion into the Civil War and the roles that both Lincoln and African Americans played in it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

In working on this book, I was nurtured by my experience at the CUNY Graduate Center. I was teaching some classes on research techniques and others in my field of American studies. Members of CUNY’s graduate student cohort helped me by assisting in research, proofreading manuscripts, and offering suggestions. I also appreciate the input I got from my distinguished colleagues [Distinguished Professor] James Oakes and [Distinguished Professor] David Waldstreicher of the History program. The CUNY environment is so stimulating intellectually, especially for an interdisciplinary scholar like me.

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