Harold Holzer wins National Humanities Medal for 2008





Harold Holzer’s new book, Lincoln President-Elect, is the thirty-first he has authored, coauthored, or edited on the subject of our sixteenth president. Yet, even after decades of research, writing, and lecturing, Holzer’s appreciation for Lincoln hasn’t flagged. “Lincoln remains a unique touchstone not only because every president in recent memory identifies with him, and draws strength from him, but also because so many ordinary Americans regard him as the symbol of the American dream.”

Though widely known as a Lincoln expert, Holzer is not a professional historian. His career has been in public relations—working on political campaigns in New York and for many years in the administration of former Governor Mario Cuomo and as public affairs director for New York’s large PBS station, WNET. In 1992, he joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he remains today as the senior vice president for external affairs.

Despite the pressures of such work, Holzer has long kept after Lincoln on the side. He points to an early 1970s issue of Life magazine as the catalyst. It had a photograph of Richard Nixon sitting in his study with a print of the Lincoln family on the wall behind him. Holzer knew the print, but Lincoln’s face was markedly different. It sparked his curiosity about lithography and etching and nineteenth-century political image-making. “Lincoln had spent a lot of time cultivating his image as the great emancipator, posing for artists and photographers.” Out of this research came Holzer’s first book in 1984, The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print.

Holzer is quick to thank those he’s worked for: “I’ve been blessed to work for great administrators who love scholarship: the late John Jay Iselin at Channel 13, Governor Mario Cuomo, Philippe de Montebello and Emily Rafferty at the Met. Philippe and Emily love to tease me, rib me, about my extracurriculars but they are wonderfully supportive.” Holzer has made the most of their support by sticking to a rigorous schedule of writing and lecturing. “For years, I wrote on the train from Rye into the city. Now, weekends are devoted to writing, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Vacations are research trips. I’m not sure my wife and children always loved Lincoln, but they’ve been wonderful. My daughter Remy, who was born on February 11, spent many of her early birthdays in Springfield and Gettysburg. My daughter Meg, who was born on June 3—Jefferson Davis’s birthday—got roped into the Confederate trips.”

Holzer also credits the supportive community of Lincoln scholars. He traces his interest in Lincoln back to the fifth grade when he had to do a report on Lincoln and discovered Richard Current’s The Lincoln Nobody Knows in the library of P.S. 67 in Little Neck, Queens. Current, whose presentation of enduring controversies surrounding Lincoln fascinated the nine-year-old Holzer, later became a mentor to the young historian: “He’s a friend and still going at ninety-six.” So, too, did Stefan Lorant, whose 1941 Lincoln: His Life in Photographs Holzer cites as another major influence. The innovative Hungarian photojournalist had been imprisoned by Hitler in 1933 and fled Germany, beginning his life again first in England, and then in the United States. “He befriended me as a kid, and that book of his that so captured a bar mitzvah boy’s eye and heart remains wonderful. It was certainly the most influential Lincoln book for me. He was showing how you could not only orchestrate pictures and words, but speak volumes in a paragraph—he is still the most concise of all Lincoln writers, an example I wish I could emulate.”

Asked to name his favorite among his own books, he demurs: “The newest is always your favorite. I’m a PR professional, after all. Lincoln President-Elect is certainly the most newsworthy book I’ve done—timed for Election Day 2008—and also the most detailed.” It’s obvious, though, that the 2004 Lincoln at Cooper Union holds a special place in its author’s heart. “I’d always wanted to make the case that New York made Lincoln. As a New Yorker, I got a special thrill out of seeing that book in print. Now I’m serving as guest historian for a 2009 New-York Historical Society exhibit that will carry the story forward: ‘Lincoln and New York.’ ”

To Holzer, Lincoln remains the indispensable American. “One has only to look at the most recent presidential election to appreciate that a gifted person can still rise from humble origins and become president—an extraordinary fulfillment of what Lincoln believed, and lived. What made it even sweeter is that Mr. Obama quoted Lincoln in his own victory speech—closing the circle, and reminding the country that we’ve taken another step to completing what Lincoln called America’s ‘unfinished work.’”


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