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Professor portrays one of America's favorite presidents

By Dana Trismen

Section: Arts

February 28, 2013

Professor John Burt’s (ENG) recently published book “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism” is garnering great critical acclaim—a high honor given that Burt wasn’t sure it would be published in his lifetime.

“I had to say, I never really thought I was going to finish it, never mind that it would make such a splash,” Burt said. Yet, “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism,” an impressive work totaling 832 pages that Burt spent 26 years completing, has been published even before Burt’s retirement. Instead of viewing Lincoln as a political or historical icon, the book instead paints him as a figure in political philosophy.

Burt’s interest in the Civil War era stems from Robert Penn Warren, an American poet and novelist from the South, whom Burt admires. Burt mentions Warren’s focus on the morality in the South, which he saw as a static society. “Warren’s view of Lincoln really interested me,” Burt said. “He was a white Southerner that had at one point sponsored racial integration and then changed his mind about it, and this insight about Lincoln was very valuable to think about.” Burt also states that he is an ‘Americanist,’ a scholar of American history and culture. “The big story of the United States is the story of its confrontation with the history of slavery and the history of racism,” said Burt. “So the central event is the run up to the Civil War and the extended consequences that still exist today.”

The New York Times describes “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism” as “a work that every serious student of Lincoln will have to read,” a text that portrays Lincoln as a philosophical and moral man. “Lincoln is hugely treated as a political figure or a historical figure,” Burt said. “It is not usual, though not unheard of, to treat him as a figure in political philosophy.” Burt follows in the footsteps of Harry Jaffa, who portrayed Lincoln similarly in his book “Crisis of the House Divided” in 1959. Yet, critics are arguing that Burt’s book has finally been the one to surpass Jaffa’s. Burt’s book focuses on Lincoln’s ability to morally compromise. “The problem with taking in a really morally strenuous position is that it tempts to the belief that you are different morally in kind from your opponents,” said Burt. “It was very important of Lincoln not to lose sight of the humanity of his opponents.”

Burt mentions some of the concessions and compromises Lincoln made. For example, his idea of gradual, compensated emancipation. “He did not imagine himself terribly different from the slaveholders,” Burt said. He went on saying that Lincoln admitted that if he had been born in the South, he probably would have been against the end of slavery, or at least not have known what to do about the issue. “He felt obligated to offer what he thought were reasonable concessions to them.”
A large amount of Burt’s text concerns itself with the debates between Douglas and Lincoln. Burt argues that these are key historic moments because, “Lincoln had to defend himself against an opponent in these debates … Douglas was a formidable opponent … he wasn’t humiliated; he held his own.” Burt mentions that in that era, political debates were more vicious than the ones held today. “[They used] lots of extremely lewd tactics against each other,” said Burt. “That said, they also came to grips with some very important issues.” Lincoln’s performance in these debates proclaimed what exactly his moral compass and views were. For Burt, these debates were a way to examine Lincoln thoroughly. “They were a place where most politicians had to articulate what democracy really meant to them,” Burt said.

Burt is a professor of English at Brandeis, but argues that history and literature are intertwined. He believes you cannot teach a text without mentioning its historical backdrop. “First, when you’re teaching American literature, you’re always responding to the culture and politics of that era,” he said. Burt also argues that literature has a lot to do with history. “My reading of Lincoln is not a straightforward historical one because my evidence is literary,” said Burt. “I read his speeches with an eye for subtext and nuance and suggestion, and that kind of reading is essentially a literary way for reading.”

Burt also mentioned the literary concept of negative capability in terms of Lincoln. The president “followed out intuitions that he himself did not fully understand at the time,” an interpretation that, again, Burt argues is a “literary concept.”

As the Civil War recedes further and further into the past, Burt argues that its legacy still endures. “We continue to fight Civil War issues straight through to the present,” he said. “Certainly through the Jim Crow era, our politics were completely distorted by the failures of reconstruction.” Burt went on to mention President Johnson in the 1960s, whose policies led the Democratic Party to change their allegiance on the issue of racial integration. Burt believes this was an “echo of the politics of the Civil War era.”

Twenty-six years in the making, Burt’s book is a well thought out portrait of one of America’s favorite presidents. “Now of course, it’s not that I didn’t publish anything else, I published enough to keep my hand in [during that time],” said Burt. “But this book I chewed over and chewed over and rewrote for 26 years.” Burt’s time and effort have paid off: He has succeeded in bringing to life an extremely influential, morally conscious man, one who was always respectful of his opponents.

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