Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire

Article excerpt

The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire. By Todd Nathan Thompson. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 178. $29.50, ISBN 978-0-8093-3422-3.)

Devoted to an examination of not only the image of Abraham Lincoln but also the ways Lincoln shaped portrayals of himself, this short book manages to achieve a great deal in a very few pages.

Todd Nathan Thompson begins with satire, showing how Lincoln reoriented satirical stories in order to use them politically. Lincoln's ability to manipulate narrative extended to his self-fashioning, too. He transformed his poverty, lack of beauty, and even his political mistakes into assets by accepting them and preempting mockery with his own self-deprecating jokes. Not everyone embraced Lincoln's humility. For critics in the South, Lincoln could never joke away his associations with emancipation, often linked directly to diabolical intent. For English observers, Lincoln represented everything rough about American culture and politics. In examining these negative portrayals, Thompson's interest lies in the ways that Lincoln manipulated the conventions and complexities of humor itself.

Thompson examines many of the nuts and bolts of humor, identifying not only its themes but also the fundamental operational structure that underlies its successes and failures. This analysis is helpful to identify the approach Lincoln used in his humor. Writing at length about Lincoln's use of satirical leveling, for example, Thompson uses Lincoln's attacks on Lewis Cass to show how comparison can serve as a humorous tool in which self-deprecation knocks down the pretensions of an opponent. …

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