Everybody's History: Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past

By Andreasen, Bryon C. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

Everybody's History: Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past


Andreasen, Bryon C., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Everybody's History: Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past. By Keith A. Erekson. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 251, appendix, notes, index. Paperback, $26.95.)

Keith A. Erekson is assistant professor of history at University of Texas at El Paso, where he founded and directs the university's Center for History Teaching and Learning. Part of a series entitled "Public History in Historical Perspective" edited by Marla R. Miller, Everybody's History is both an engaging narrative of Lincoln studies in the early twentieth century and a sophisticated appraisal of the process and practices of historical inquiry.

Erekson chronicles the rise and demise of the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society-a group of several hundred men and women from all walks of life who shared a deep interest in the history and culture of their region. Many had ancestors who settled the area. Following the lead of their society's founder and unflagging champion, Evansville lawyer John E. Iglehart, they worked collectively during the 1920s and into the next decade to recover, record, and retell the stories of the region's pioneer generationwhich included the family of Abraham Lincoln. Erekson argues that in doing so, they created a model of public history enterprise that holds lessons for today's practitioners of history.

Indignant at the neglect of the Indiana phase of Lincoln's life in much of the Lincoln literature up to that time, and stung by the demeaning stereotypes of Hoosier society employed by those writers who did acknowledge Lincoln's Indiana background, Iglehart rallied Society members in creating a "Lincoln Inquiry." "By encouraging and assigning hundreds of people to pursue questions about local and family history," writes Erekson, "the Lincoln Inquiry sought to produce...a rich history of southern Indiana that would provide the proper context and perspective for understanding Lincoln's Indiana youth" (p. 85).

The Lincoln Inquiry envisioned frontier Indiana as a reflection of the broader American experience. Members appropriated Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis" to bolster their interpretation. By applying Lincoln as a "typological figure," Erekson argues, they "pulled Turner's abstract national thesis down to a concrete local level" and in doing so pulled "Lincoln's estimable qualities back down onto their pioneer ancestors individually and collectively." Beyond making local history relevant to large historical questions, the Inquiry's "application of the frontier thesis also reinforced its collective approach to historical research and writing" (pp. 91-2).

Erekson first tells the stories of those individuals who sublimated their rivalries to allow the Lincoln Inquiry to form and flourish. …

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