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This article is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

'Vaulting Ambition': Poetry, Photography and Lincoln's Self-Fashioning David C. Ward

Despite the ubiquity of Abraham Lincoln’s image in American culture, an omnipresence that began in his own lifetime and which he himself was instrumental in creating, there remains an essential and necessary mystery to the man. For Lincoln, withholding - even suppressing - was as important to the creation of his personality, his career and his posterity as were projection and assertion. As we’ll see, photography played a vital role in Lincoln’s strategy of self-assertion and self-erasure; a self-erasure, I will argue, that allowed him continually to re-emerge elsewhere, reconstituted and with new purposes. As the fall of the camera’s shutter stops time, consigning the image immediately to the past, it also frees the sitter - Lincoln - to proceed on to the next stage of his and America’s reinvention. Ironically, even as Lincoln is now taken as a repository of natural virtue - a status confirmed by his portraits - he agonised about the potentially damaging consequences of his own radical antinomianism.

Lincoln had himself photographed continually after his emergence as a major public figure in the late 1850s. The accumulated archive of photographs indexes the progress of his career almost up to the moment of his death. The portraits displayed to the public evidence his work on their behalf. The photographs document the erosion of his physiognomy and testify to the emotional strain and suffering that he shared with the public. But even within the continuum established by the archive, each separate photograph stands in ...

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