Going to Mr. Lincoln's House
Authenticity and the tourist’s Lincoln
February 10, 1983
The kind of experience travelers have of Lincoln in Springfield, and of Lincoln’s Springfield, has been a preoccupation in the capital city for decades. Unfortunately, the tourist experience is usually understood in terms of education or entertainment, not historical authenticity.
I was in the eighth grade. That was the grade when every student in Springfield's public schools had U.S. history taught at him. This teaching is the pretext for a custom (of how many years' duration I do not know) of piling said students aboard buses and conveying them to Lincoln's home at Eighth and Jackson.
I have tried in the years since to recapture some memory of that day, particularly what I thought (or thought I thought) about Lincoln as I unpiled with my friends in front of the house. (I can't remember what time of year it was, so I'm not sure whether we'd had the Civil War yet, not that that would have made much difference; I was not then much interested in wars which did not have submarines in them.) I remember having learned that it was a good thing that the North won the Civil War, that "saving the Union" and freeing the slaves were somehow connected, that Robert E. Lee was an okay guy for a Southerner. Lincoln I had heard about before, going back to my earliest years in schools. I was already bored by Lincoln.
I probably already knew but did not yet appreciate the fact that students like me had for years been trucked in from as far away as Streator and Centralia, even Chicago, to see the home, a spring migration which rivaled those of the birds in raucousness if not numbers. We came all the way from Washington Junior High School at Twenty-third and Jackson streets, which is exactly fifteen blocks from Lincoln's home. It was not until later that I realized that in all the ways that mattered Washington Junior High was just as far away from Lincoln's home as was Chicago.
Years later, I learned that a whopping high percentage of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who filed through the home each year in the sixties were unwilling pilgrims like us. Thus the world was made to seem a whole lot more interested in Lincoln than it really was. I concluded that an honest tourism official would have made downward adjustment in attendance figures, assigning to each such student a value equal to, say, three-fifths of a regular tourist, rather the way the framers of the Constitution got around the knotty problem of congressional representation in the South by counting a slave as only three-fifths a person.
Except for a hiatus on the West Coast during the Korean War, my family had lived in Springfield since my birth. I did not recall ever having been to Lincoln's home before that day of our school trip. When I was a baby I lived with my parents in an apartment building on Eighth Street downtown, a block and half north of the Lincolns' house. (It is that way in Springfield. No matter where you live or go to school, your life intersects at some level with Lincoln's.) On warm evenings (I am told) my father and mother walked south along Eighth Street to lies Park, sixteen blocks away, to watch softball games, with me in a stroller. We would have passed the Lincolns' front door every time. But if we ever went in, my parents do not remember it. Later we moved to the far eastern reaches of town, but Lincoln could not have been more remote from our lives if we had commuted from Caledonia.
Learning about Lincoln—more accurately, learning about things like Lincoln—was one of those things parents entrusted to the schools back then. If it was important, my parents believed, Jimmy would get it in school. I remember trying hard to be interested as we piled off the bus and lined up in front of the house. I don't remember what I had been told about the house and the people who lived in it but then I remember virtually nothing of what I was told about anything in school. I deduced from the fact that we had been let out of school to go there that it was somehow Very Important, for the people who ran the schools did not lightly risk granting us the pleasures of a field trip.
Why it was important, I couldn't have told you. I remember thinking as we shuffled through the house how uncomfortable it felt, how prickly the air felt in my lungs, how dark the rooms seemed, how it reminded me of other houses I had visited—my great-grandmother's for one—which had also been lived in by dead people.
The problem was partly physical. In spite of the props—the stove-pipe hat hanging on a peg in the foyer, the toys left scattered in the children's rooms—the house did not feel like a home, could not feel like a home. Even then I was struck by the presumption in the word "home" applied to the Lincolns' house. "Home" is a private word. The Lincolns had the right to call their house a home, but my teachers didn't. Going in, I felt briefly like a burglar, taking advantage of the owners' unwilling absence. It quickly passed.
I confronted much the same problem several years later when I hired on for a few months as tour guide at the newly restored Lincoln-Herndon Law offices in Springfield. As had been done at the house, a certain verisimilitude had been aimed for by the restorers. Papers were left strewn about, and there were half-burnt candles on all the desks. But it was all much too clean (although to be fair I only knew that from reading about it; I doubt if most tourists noticed), the rooms were innocent of smoke from a badly stoked stove, and instead of horses one heard the whine of diesel bus engines from the street below. Like the house, it was a stage set, but unlike any stage set it lacked players—which might conceal its artifice with art.
One of our happy party penetrated the heart of this fraud during our field trip to the Lincoln "home." We had descended clumsily via the back stairs into the kitchen. A loaf of bread was displayed on a table, and one of the boys—having absorbed the prattle in the other rooms about which chair was genuine and which was a replica with as much patience as he could—replied to the guide's request for questions by demanding, "Is that the original bread?" The guide took the question seriously, which added to our amusement. The incident was my introduction to the complexities of historical site interpretation.
As I tumbled out of the back door onto Jackson Street I was grateful for a sight of the sun which almost alone, unlike bread loafs or history, seemed incapable of being manipulated for effect by adults. I was confused, but not by the contradictions which had settled into the woodwork of this famous home-which-isn't-really-a-home like termites. I had been struck immediately by the fanciness of the furniture. It wasn't that I was surprised to see fancy furniture in an 1850s house, but that I was surprised to see it in this 1850s house. I didn't know it at the time, but ten years previously The New Yorker's A. J. Liebling had visited Springfield. One of his stops had been Edwards Place, a mansion owned by Lincoln's brother-in-law. Liebling would write of that house: "I didn't think any man with legs as long as Lincoln's could be comfortable in a . . . house like this one, where, if he crossed them, he would probably knock over a glass bell full of stuffed hummingbirds."
Exactly. The Lincoln I "knew"—the rail-splitting, flat-boating, circuit-riding Lincoln—could not have been comfortable in such a house as his either. Had I not been such a stupid boy, I would have realized that indeed the Lincoln of the log cabin was not the Lincoln of Eighth Street, and that all that furious book-borrowing had been done expressly in order to become the sort of man who might someday live on an Eighth Street somewhere. If the guides, or our teachers, were aware of this very vivid contradiction they did not let on. I have often wondered why. Did they think social ambition beyond our understanding? Or did they think it unseemly to attribute such grubby ambitions to Lincoln? Or did they, like so many Americans, merely accept the house as a given, causeless and eternal, part of the legend which was to be absorbed but not examined? All I do know is that probably the only lesson about its owners which the house can teach people is wasted on eighth-graders. I had learned a little about Lincoln's house, but I learned nothing about Lincoln. ●