A highly regarded historian of children’s literature, Leonard S. Marcus has written a number of books on the subject. His most recent work, however, is a nonfiction book for middle-grade readers, Mr. Lincoln Sits for His Portrait, about an iconic 1864 photograph of Abraham Lincoln reading to his son Tad. We spoke with Marcus about his lifelong fascination with America’s 16th president, some of the surprises of his research, and Lincoln’s very 21st-century understanding of the power of images.
Why did you decide to write a middle-grade book, and why on Abraham Lincoln?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in Lincoln. As a child I read biographies all the time and Lincoln was one of my favorite subjects. When I was in fifth grade I actually wrote a 20-page historical narrative about him. It was based on a television show that was popular then, called You Were There, which was narrated by the Walter Cronkite. Cronkite would be on camera with a microphone, reporting on a historical event as though he were there, back in time. And then in 1960 when I was 10 years old, I campaigned for John F. Kennedy, thinking there were similarities between him and Lincoln: they were both very idealistic and funny, and good communicators. I felt a connection between them.
Lincoln’s skill as a communicator became a point of fascination for me. I think that when you read Lincoln’s words, you want to be in his company. I also always liked him because he was unpretentious, he was a decent person, and he was a little bit of a trickster, able to outsmart people the way he did Stephen Douglas in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. He loved to tell self-deprecating stories, and make self-deprecating remarks about his appearance. When Douglas called him “two-faced,” he famously turned to the audience and asked, “If I had another face, would I be wearing this one?”
As to the timing—early in the pandemic I decided to cope with self-isolation by focusing on writing projects that would be especially satisfying to myself. Coincidentally, just before the pandemic, I had gotten a call from the grandson of Dorothy Kunhardt, who became famous for creating Pat the Bunny. The family wanted to publish a big, illustrated book on her career and they asked me to write the essay for it—which I did. Dorothy’s father, Frederick Meserve, had been one of the greatest collectors of Lincoln photographs, and Dorothy was his research assistant for much of her life, and became an expert in Lincoln, as well. I had always thought it was fascinating as well as amusing that those two specialities—Lincoln and book making for preschoolers and toddlers—had come together in one person. I like to think that Lincoln, who had a great sense of humor and loved to read to his own children, would have enjoyed the convergence of these two seemingly unrelated areas of interest. Working on the essay about Dorothy was like a little nudge in Lincoln’s direction.
Meanwhile, Farrar, Straus and Giroux had been interested for some time in my writing a book for young people. Some years ago, I had written a book with Frances Foster and after Frances died, I was asked who in the department I would like to work with and I said Wes Adams. I had met Wes years earlier at a conference and came away with a sense of him as a very focused and dedicated editor who was all about making the best possible books. I went to Wes with the idea of writing about Lincoln, and he thought it was worth pursuing.
Why did you choose to focus your book on the photo of Lincoln reading to his son Tad, and how did this focus expand as the book developed?
The photo of Lincoln reading to Tad, taken on February 9, 1864, is an iconic one that has been widely reproduced. Given my lifelong interest in Lincoln and serious interest in photography, I had known that photo for a very long time. It was the jumping-off point for the book. Because it’s a very well-known photo, I knew there would be some good stories about it, but at the time I didn’t know what they would be. It turned out that exploring the backstory of that particular image led to my writing a book about how an image can go out into public view and once there be interpreted, misinterpreted, and even repurposed by others.
It’s such a tender photograph, and so different from the typical, more formally posed images we have of Lincoln and his contemporaries. I always wondered about the book Lincoln was reading to Tad. Many people have assumed it was a bible, and it was a great surprise to me to learn that it was a sample catalog the photographer Mathew Brady had in his photo studio, where the picture was taken. It was used for the purposes of the photo as a kind of theatrical prop.
The portraits of Lincoln that Dorothy’s father discovered are among the best known of all Lincoln images. Once I began writing my book, I looked more closely at all the Lincoln photos from the Meserve-Kunhardt collection. Looking at them in chronological order, I could see Lincoln morph from an antsy, unwilling subject to a knowing collaborator with Brady and other photographers whose studios he frequented.
When I started researching the photo of Lincoln with Tad, I learned that he had been fascinated by photography from the time he was a young politician. His opponents had often tried to put him down as a country hick who was also physically ugly. Lincoln discovered that the right photo could show the world that he was in fact a person of strength and determination—and that he was ready to lead. It’s well-known that Lincoln loved to go to the theater. I think that in photography he felt he had found a kind of theater of self-presentation. It allowed him to tell his story to the American people as surely as he could when he stood before an audience and made one of his spellbinding speeches.
What was your research process like and did it produce any surprises?
Because I was working during the pandemic, I was especially lucky that so many primary sources are now online. A few years ago the Library of Congress created a program called Letters to Lincoln in which they asked volunteers to transcribe some of the many thousands of letters to and from Lincoln. You can now view the original letters and the transcriptions side by side. Both the Library of Congress and the National Portrait Gallery have hi-res digital images available for free. And the Kunhardt family let us use their high-res scan of the photo of Lincoln and Tad, which was made from an original glass-plate negative—one of many they own.
Approximately 15,000 books have been published about Lincoln. So there are plenty of secondary sources, and I read many of them as well. One of my favorite primary sources was the painter Francis Carpenter’s book, Six Months at the White House. He lived in the White House in 1864 while he worked on the famous painting, “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet,” and kept a kind of diary while he lived there—Lincoln let him use the state dining room as his studio! He may have exaggerated his closeness to Lincoln a bit, and he is occasionally bombastic, but his book includes so many living details. Reading Carpenter’s book made me feel like I was actually there with him and Lincoln. He records many of the anecdotes Lincoln told him when they were together. I wanted to create this same real sense of what Lincoln was like in my book.
I’ve also always been interested in photography as an art form. Writing this book gave me the opportunity to research and write about things I love on many levels. Most of all I came to love Lincoln even more after writing this book. When you’re writing a biography, sometimes the opposite happens: you start out admiring your subject but researching and writing about them is sometimes disillusioning. But with Lincoln, it just deepened my original feelings about him.
One surprise in researching this book was that I hadn’t realized how relatively sophisticated the media was during Lincoln’s time. He could be giving a speech in some obscure small town and somebody would be there to transcribe every word. The speech would then be sent by telegraph to newspapers across the nation, and within a day or two people everywhere would know what Lincoln had said.
Another surprise for me was learning how easy it was to meet the president in those days. You could just show up at the front door of the White House and you’d be let in. You would make your way up to the second-floor waiting room, and you might have to wait for some time, but eventually most people would be able to meet Lincoln and talk with him. When I think about that, I’m not at all surprised that he was assassinated. What surprises me is that it didn’t happen sooner. Lincoln believed it was his job to be in touch with ordinary people even though he knew there was a risk associated with that.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?
I hope they will have a more immediate sense of what Lincoln was like as a person, how he understood that he could use various options to lead and persuade the public. I want young people to think of him as an admirable person, someone who genuinely wanted to connect with people and to do right by them, which culminated in his freeing of enslaved people. This was a huge historical achievement, and it was hard to achieve. I find it very interesting that he thought to use Francis Carpenter’s painting to help in that mission. Lincoln saw art as a political tool and used it purposefully—not as propaganda, but a way of helping the public understand his goal. He didn’t use it to help him stay in power, but to help him achieve larger goals.
I also hope readers come to realize that the use of media didn’t begin yesterday. Lincoln was at the forefront in using the technologies of his time to communicate the images of himself that he wanted people to have. If he were alive today, he would definitely be on social media!
Mr. Lincoln Sits for His Portrait: The Story of a Photograph That Became an American Icon by Leonard S. Marcus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $19.99 Jan. 3 ISBN 978-0-473-30348-8