Originally published 01/07/2013
Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton.... Lincoln is a remarkable historical rendering, offering a deft, knowledgeable depiction of Lincoln as well as a shrewd handling of the politics of the Civil War and emancipation. But the film’s larger importance lies elsewhere. For a century and more, American culture has been polluted by outrageous and pernicious portrayals of the war that apologize for the Confederacy and, by extension, for slavery. A few exceptionally popular books and movies have played a large part in sustaining, sometimes decades after they first appeared, what American historians know as the myth of the Lost Cause, vaunting the slaveholding South. With its gallant white Southrons and its happy-go-lucky slaves, living an idyll heavy with the scent of blooming magnolia, it is an all-American variant of the larger genre of reactionary sentimentalism that is as old as the Romantics.