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Journal Article

Postmodernity and Historical Reputation: Abraham Lincoln in Late Twentieth-Century American Memory

Barry Schwartz
Social Forces
Vol. 77, No. 1 (Sep., 1998), pp. 63-103
Published by: Oxford University Press
DOI: 10.2307/3006010
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3006010
Page Count: 41
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Postmodernity and Historical Reputation: Abraham Lincoln in Late Twentieth-Century American Memory
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Abstract

Postmodernity has eroded America's metanarrative-the myth that answers ultimate questions about national origin, purpose, and fate. I explore this claim by tracing America's grandest narrative-the narrative of Abraham Lincoln-through the twentieth century. Gallup Poll ratings of presidential greatness, shrine visits, and citation counts from the Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature, New York Times Index, and Congressional Record show Lincoln's prestige plummeting during the 1960s and never recovering. During this same period the reputation of other popular presidents-Washington, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower-fell abruptly and simultaneously. The erosion of these reputations and the metanarrative of which they are a part resulted not from political and social crises of the period but from a "postmodern turn" within which these crises assumed their traumatic character. Because an emergent pattern of indifference toward great presidents of the past coexists with a residual pattern of reverence (most evident in history texts and in surveys of visitors to national shrines), however, claims about the erosion of metanarratives must be qualified. The theoretical problem is to develop a perspective on American memory that recognizes the uniqueness of late twentieth-century culture while making the coexistence of continuity and change its principal point of focus.

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