Doris Kearns Goodwin: 'This stuff is amazing'

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin toured the Oregon Historical Society's Lincoln collection with Portland developer Melvin 'Pete' Mark Monday afternoon. It was Mark who collected the items from Lincoln's presidency and hosted the OHS exhibit.With six books and countless appearances to her name, Doris Kearns Goodwin is usually not at a loss for words.

But many of the items in an Oregon Historical Society exhibit on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy left Goodwin, author of a widely praised book on Lincoln that became the basis for the 2012 movie, practically speechless.

“This stuff is amazing,” Goodwin said Monday as she viewed items that Melvin "Pete" Mark of Portland has collected for years and explained to her on an hourlong tour.

Goodwin took the tour between a private lunch and a public talk Monday night at the Newmark Theater, both sponsored by the historical society. The items are interspersed with those from the Oregon Historical Society’s own collections in the exhibition, “Two Years, One Month.”

The exhibition focuses on the 16th president and events from the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sent to the states on Jan. 31, 1865. The first document abolished slavery in the Southern states at war with the Union; the second abolished slavery in the entire nation.

A previous exhibition at the historical society featured various items in the Mary and Pete Mark Family Foundation Collection from George Washington to John F. Kennedy, and was considered a wide-ranging survey show.

Brian J. Carter, OHS museum director and curator of the Lincoln exhibition, said the aim this time was for a narrower focus.

“We ended up with a bite-sized part of his legacy,” Carter says.

Mark family collection

Mark said that another prominent historian, David McCullough, had urged him to donate his collection to the Smithsonian Institution. But Mark said he wanted to keep the items in Oregon, where they might get greater public attention than if they were simply added to the Smithsonian’s vast holdings.

Among the featured items in the exhibition are two copies of the Emancipation Proclamation. One was signed by Lincoln — one of just 48 copies auctioned for the benefit of wounded soldiers — and the other was among a rare first printing given to Robert C. Kirk, the U.S. minister to Argentina. That copy was accompanied by a transmittal letter signed by William Seward, secretary of state under Lincoln.

Another featured item was an official U.S. House copy of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

The exhibition also has written documents from Union Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

There’s a poster advertising “Our American Cousin,” the play Lincoln saw at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865, the night he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The poster also advertises Lincoln’s scheduled presence.

There’s also a replica of the coat tailored for Lincoln’s second inaugural ceremony on March 4, 1865.

“I can just picture him in it,” Goodwin said of Lincoln, who at 6 feet 4 inches was the tallest of the presidents.

About the book

The movie “Lincoln” focuses on the political struggle that preceded House approval of the 13th Amendment for ratification by the states, although there are flashbacks to earlier events during the Civil War and in Lincoln’s life.

That struggle is covered in a small portion of Goodwin’s 2005 book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which took her 10 years to research and write. The actual screenplay was written by playwright Tony Kushner.

The book focuses on how Lincoln managed to defeat three rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860: Seward, the frontrunner and a New York senator; Salmon P. Chase, Ohio governor and favored by abolitionists, and Edward Bates, former Missouri attorney general and favored by conservatives — and then how he brought them into his presidency.

After she won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1995 book, “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II,” Goodwin began casting about for a basis for a book about Lincoln, who has been the subject of more books than any other president.

“At first I thought I was going to write about Abe and Mary Lincoln, just as I wrote about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt,” Goodwin says. “But I realized Mary Lincoln could not carry the public side of the story, because she had not been a public figure like Eleanor.”

She then visited Seward’s home in Albany, N.Y., and found it fascinating that Lincoln named Seward as secretary of state, the senior position in a president’s Cabinet. Chase ended up as treasury secretary, and Bates as attorney general.

“Suddenly I realized this is the story I want to tell,” she said. “But it took me two years into a 10-year process.”

As is her method, Goodwin seeks to tap little-used primary sources in her writing — and she found a trove in the letters and diaries of Lincoln’s Cabinet members and their relatives.

“Seward would write 10-page letters to his wife at night,” she says. “They all kept diaries, they talked about Lincoln that day — their relationships, their jealousies and anger — and they gave me perspective on Lincoln that I could not get from Lincoln alone. It was like a soap opera.”

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