"So Difficult to Instruct"
Re-envisioning Abraham and Tad Lincoln
This photograph of Abraham Lincoln and his son Thomas (Tad) was taken by Anthony Berger in Mathew Brady's Washington, D.C. studios on February 9, 1864. It shows the president and his son looking at a photograph album (a prop that was lying around the studio) together. The photograph was commissioned by the painter Francis Carpenter, who was at the time working in the White House preparing sketches that would serve as the basis for his First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln (1864). This particular sitting led to a number of images that have become part of U.S. national iconography. For example, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was taken on this day was used as the basis for the image that appears on the five-dollar bill. This image of the president and his son, however, soon to become one of the most popular and most reproduced depictions of Lincoln, was not published or otherwise publicly distributed until a year after its completion. Only after Lincoln's assassination in 1865 did the image become ubiquitous. The variety of changes introduced to the image in its reproductions offers a fascinating glimpse into how iconography produces narratives and fantasies about national history, culture, and values.
1. The book that Lincoln held in his lap in the Mathew Brady studios was a photograph album. However, in most reproductions of the image, the book is either captioned as, or made to look like, a Bible. The 1865 Currier & Ives' lithograph based on the pose was titled President Lincoln at Home, Reading the Scriptures to His Wife and Son. One can see the deliberate visual changes made by the artisans reproducing the image by comparing two engravings published by H.B. Hall. Look closely at the visual detail of the books: the first reproduces the book as a photo album, the second as a Bible. Lincoln himself worried over the book's falsely "biblical" appearance. In Lincoln in Photographs, Lloyd Ostendorf relays Lincoln's concern that any visual fabrications representing the photo album as a Bible would amount to "a species of false pretence." Lincoln's brief but suggestive comment makes explicit what the photograph's changing nature asserts implicitly: images can and do lie.
2. What stories are told by the visual details of the different versions of this image? After Lincoln's assassination, consumers purchased the images based on this pose in order to participate in a national moment of mourning; the biblical/scriptural elements added to the image likely aided a feeling of sacredness that consumers were hoping to experience. It could be argued that Harper's Weekly initiated the melancholy usage of this image by publishing it on its cover on May 6, 1865, two weeks after the president's assassination. The first post-assassination issue of Harper's Weekly focuses mainly on the murder itself, emphasizing, in part via an enormous portrait image of John Wilkes Booth, the crime and its immediately infamous perpetrator. The second post-assassination issue of the weekly magazine appeared on May 6 and focuses on Lincoln's New York funeral procession, including a variety of pieces addressing what one author calls "The Truest Mourners." The emphasis in the May 6 issue is on healing and hagiography, rather than outrage. Significantly, the cover image from May 6, captioned "Lincoln at Home," quickly became one of the most famous "domestic" images of the president. This particular domestic image, emphasizing family feeling, fatherly care, and instruction, suggests that the nation experienced Lincoln's death as one would a family member.
3. The "Lincoln at Home" versions of this image are often compositional fantasies, bringing together figures who were not together at the moment of depiction (indeed, the president and his wife were never photographed together), and presenting an imaginary healed version of a "First Family" that was in fact riven by circumstance. Compositionally, these engravings, lithographs, and intaglio prints drop other figures into the frame with President Lincoln and Tad, altering the "reality" of the original photograph. For example, in this 1865 engraving (at left) by Frederic B. Schell, wife Mary Todd and son Robert now flank the president and Tad "reading," while the beloved and deceased son Willie appears in a portrait hanging on the wall to the side of the family. In 1880, the Kurz & Allison Art Studio issued a lithograph (at right) captioned "Lincoln and Family" that incorporated the "reading" pose into a representation that again brought the family together, even as over half of them (the President, Willie, and Tad) were no longer living. These images attempt to visually reconstruct the family as a way to reconstruct the nation.
4. In The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views, historian Harold Holzer suggests that the image of father and son serves as "an enduring touchstone representing freedom and opportunity" (118) in American visual iconography. This narrative about education and freedom is complicated, however, when we take into account other perspectives articulated by those who were intimate with the Lincolns, in particular their black servants in particular their black servants. Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley devotes a long passage in her 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes to a consideration of Tad Lincoln's inability to read. For if we understand the "domesticity" of the pose as a fantasy (the president and his son were not physically "at home," and any familial intimacy depicted had been undone by violence by the time of the image's reproduction), we must also understand the substitution of "reading" for "looking" in the father-son narrative as a fictional story producers and consumers of this image decided to tell themselves. An image of father and son "reading" the Bible together offers the solemnity of spiritual education in place of the entertaining spectacle of "looking" at pictures. But the reproductions' emphasis on "reading" over "looking" had even more specific relevance in the case of Tad Lincoln, for Tad, significantly, was well-known to be illiterate until after his father's death.
Keckley was an intimate witness to this illiteracy, and in her memoir she narrates a particularly suggestive scene in which Tad refuses to learn how to read: "Whenever I think of this incident I am tempted to laugh; and then it occurs to me that had Tad been a negro boy, not the son of the President, and so difficult to instruct, he would have been called thick-skulled, and would have been held up as an example of the inferiority of the race" (97). Keckley's incisive commentary punctures an iconic representation of literacy and instruction by revealing how such icons are fictions supported by racialized systems of knowledge and power.
5. The Berger photograph of Lincoln and Tad has reverberated visually throughout the centuries. A suggestively sketchy version of it appears in the background of American realist painter Thomas Eakins's Negro Boy Dancing (1878); its influence can be read into Henry Ossawa Tanner's painting The Banjo Lesson (1893); and a filmic version of the pose recently appeared in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012). An exploration of the multiple forms that the image took (and takes), of the varying narratives that accompany each form, and of counter-perspectives that challenge received wisdom about how national iconography becomes imbued with meaning, urges us to look closely and constantly re-envision our past. This famous photograph has taken on meaning for many different people in many different contexts; the example of Elizabeth Keckley's commentary on Tad's illiteracy confirms that these meanings are not produced in ideological vacuums. Artists, viewers, historians, and cultural commentators have long gleaned reassuring cultural narratives about healing, family, and the progress of knowledge from this informal photograph of a father and son posing with a prop. Recognizing the "hidden" narrative about racialized systems of power and educational privilege will not restore or assert any "true" meaning of the image of Lincoln and Tad, but it should serve to caution against deifying our national icons. Our understanding of the national past, present, and future depends on whose eyes are looking.
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For more on photographic depictions of President Lincoln, see Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf, Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of All Known Poses (Norman, Okla., 1963), James Mellon, The Face of Lincoln (New York, 1979), and Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Lincoln, Life-Size (New York, 2009). For more on the images of Lincoln circulated through popular prints, see Harold Holzer, Gabor S. Boritt, and Mark E. Neely, The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print (New York, 1984). Recent scholarship on the importance of African American contributions to and commentary on nineteenth-century visual culture have revitalized the study of our national visual past. See, in particular, Shawn Michelle Smith and Maurice O. Wallace, Pictures and Progress and the Making of African American Identity (Durham, N.C., 2012) and Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Philadelphia, 2012). In a forthcoming essay in the journal MELUS, I provide a more extended close reading of Elizabeth Keckley's memoir in relation to this famous image.
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