There’s something about our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, that has stood the test of time.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the man has always been presented as a perfect, infallible figure; a whitewashed mythological being who was honest to a fault.
History professor Brian Dirck of Anderson University believes it’s something far more complex. [Photo: This undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox shows Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from the film "Lincoln."]
The professor views Lincoln as a multifaceted three-dimensional figure, a far cry from that two-dimensional “honest Abe” who could never tell a lie.
“I most enjoy teaching my students about Lincoln’s flaws,” Dirck said. “They have been handed such a cardboard caricature of him as a totally perfect man with no blemishes. I like humanizing him by discussing ... his self-doubts, insecurities, mistakes and bouts with depression.”
Dirck has authored several books on Lincoln. His most recent work, “Abraham Lincoln and White America,” focuses on Lincoln’s complicated views on racial issues.
With the release of the action film, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which was generally panned by critics, and Steven Spielberg’s topical “Lincoln,” it’s clear he’s as well known in today’s social climate as he ever has been.
“Lincoln” is currently showing at Hamilton 16 IMAX in Noblesville and AMC Showplace in Muncie.
The film generally matched Dirck’s impressions including Spielberg’s approach of focusing on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, a time when he was pushing the House of Representatives to approve the 13th Amendment to end slavery.
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly captured Lincoln’s spirit, Dirck said.
“I was astonished. I really didn’t expect him to look as much like Lincoln as he did and moreover to get the proper mannerisms and proper tone of voice. I’ve had a lot of people say they didn’t like him to sound that way, kind of a high-pitched tone, but in fact that’s actually how he sounded. He didn’t have this big booming bassoon voice like people think he had.”
Dirck has only a quibble or two with the film, including the depiction of Lincoln’s relationship with his oldest son, Robert. “Although the two had a rough relationship,” Dirck said, “Lincoln would never even come close to hitting his son.”
Dirck believes that everyone can find inspiration in Lincoln’s “dogged perseverance” and refusal to quit; that despite the man’s hang-ups, he truly was a heroic figure. “I tend to identify with the messiness of his life,” Dirck said, “the fact that he tried his best to stick to his principles, but sometimes had to compromise. Can’t we all identify with that to some degree?”
And the film — depicting the battle among politicians to end slavery — couldn’t be more relevant, he added.
“It’s so timely because we just got through an election and politics have been so contentious and difficult lately. It’s important to remind us that politics in this country have always been that way but that sometimes we can achieve high ends despite the messiness of the system we have.”
Dirck received his Ph.D. in 1998 while attending the University of Kansas. He studied under Phil Paludan, a famous Lincoln expert, and became deeply engrossed in the history of the complex president. After graduating, Dirck immediately received his first job at Anderson University that summer. George Rable, a Civil War historian, was retiring, and Dirck was luckily granted to take his place. He’s retained that position for the last 14 years and is still enjoying teaching today.
—Aaron Ploof is a reporter for The Herald Bulletin. Photo credit: David James. Story republished with permission.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson University continues to be recognized as one of America's top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, music, nursing, and theology.