Matthew Pinsker: What Do Historians Think of “Lincoln”?

With the recent release of the blockbuster, critically-acclaimed Lincoln, The Recovering Politician has asked Lincoln scholar, Matthew Pinsker — a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania — to share some historical insights about our 16th President.  Click here and here and here for his prior 3 pieces.

Here is the latest of his columns:

Here is a quick breakdown of the initial reaction from historians to Spielberg’s movie:

The leading academic critics so far have been Eric Foner from Columbia and Kate Masur from Northwestern.  Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and one of the most respected historians in the field, claims the movie “grossly exaggerates” its main point about the stark choices confronting the president at the end of the war over abolition or peace (Letter to the EditorNew York Times, November 26, 2012).  Masur also accuses the film of oversimplifying the role of blacks in abolition and dismisses the effort as “an opportunity squandered” (Op-EdNew York Times,November 12, 2012).

Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and author of more than 40 books, served as a consultant to the film and praises it but also observes that there is “no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie” in a lively piece for The Daily Beast (November 22, 2012).

Professor Matthew Pinsker

Professor Matthew Pinsker

Other historian / fact-checkers have been more kind.  Allen Guelzo, Gettysburg College, also writing for The Daily Beast has some plot criticism, but argues that, “The pains that have been taken in the name of historical authenticity in this movie are worth hailing just on their own terms” (November 27, 2012).  David Stewart, independent historical author, writing for History News Network, describes Spielberg’s work as “reasonably solid history” and tells readers of HNN, “go see it with a clear conscience” (November 20, 2012).  Lincoln Biographer Ronald White also admired the film, though he noted a few mistakes and pointed out in an interview with NPR, “Is every word true?  No.”  (November 23, 2012).

Historical author / blogger Kevin Levin finds the whole process of historical nitpicking and response to be more than a little aggravating.  Writing for The Atlantic, he complains, “Historians Need To Give Steven Spielberg A Break” (November 26, 2012).   I agreed with Levin in some ways, but for the opposite reason.  I argued for Quora (and Huffington Post) that people should simply stop worrying about whether any movie which necessarily invents dialogue, characters and scenes should ever be considered as “historically accurate.”  It’s a work of art –historical fiction—which we need to judge by other standards (November 27, 2012).  That’s also the point, Spielberg himself made at the Dedication Day ceremonies at Gettysburg (November 19, 2012) when he called his effort a “dream” and made a careful distinction between his historically inspired movie and actual works of history.


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