Facing America: Iconography and the Civil War

By Shirley Samuels | Go to book overview

5
LINCOLN'S BODY

“THE LONG AND BONY BODY IS NOW HARD AND STIFF”

This chapter is deceptively titled “Lincoln's Body, ” since I will read through the skin of his body, as though it were the flayed transparency of wellscraped parchment, the bodies of his contemporaries: those who viewed his body and those through whom his body may be viewed. Developing a relationship among somewhat disparate texts, I will consider the historical treatments of Lincoln's embalming and funeral train, the memorial poetry of Walt Whitman, the remembrances of Elizabeth Keckley, and the outlandish poetry of Adah Menken. Some of the most important motifs in this progression include the fantasies aroused by photography, the attention paid to appropriate clothing, and lessons in mourning. In bringing together these fantasies and lessons, I am drawn to the relationship exposed by members of the press. They reported the grim fascination spectators expressed with the rotting surface of the dead president's skin and paid prurient attention to Mary Todd Lincoln's attempt, three years later, to sell her clothing. My lurid suggestion that Lincoln's body might be skinned through my approach is of course intended to be metaphorical, based on such concepts as the idea that photography skins the surface of the visible world, a concept gleaned from a famous contemporary essay by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth.” 1 That both nature and art will slough off their skins for the spectator of the visible plays a strong role in the images of Lincoln's death.

I look at both carcasses and skin here. When Abraham Lincoln was assas-

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Facing America: Iconography and the Civil War
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contents ix
  • Illustrations xi
  • Facing America *
  • Introduction 3
  • 1 - Facing West 16
  • 2 - Miscegenated America 41
  • 3 - The Face of the Nation 58
  • 4 - Women at War 81
  • 5 - Lincoln's Body 99
  • Epilogue 118
  • Notes 131
  • Bibliography 159
  • Index 179
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