Monday, February 11, 2013

Do I have to work on Lincoln's birthday? (Or "Abraham Lincoln the Brontosaurus")

Today, February 12, is Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He was born in 1809, making this the 204th anniversary of his birth.

Lincoln's birthday has never been a federal holiday, although it has been observed in some states, including California. When I was a kid attending public elementary school here, we would get a day off in observance, sometimes along with George Washington's birthday as part of the same four-day weekend. By the time I was in high school, we no longer got Lincoln's birthday off, but Washington's birthday, as "Presidents' Day," honored both men and was observed on the third Monday of February (so, February 18 this year). I don't believe this loss of a day off was a state-mandated change, and it certainly wasn't federal. (In fact, did you know that the federal government actually doesn't have the power to compel anyone but federal offices to close in observance of holidays? In other words, there are no mandated national days off in the U.S.) As far as schools go, I think it's mostly at their own discretion whether they observe Lincoln's birthday. Some other public services are closed today. The post office remains open. If you work anywhere else, you're probably already at your job and not reading this. You'll more than likely get next Monday off, though, or else be offered overtime pay, provided you don't work at some startup or other ghetto place that can't afford to take holidays. So look forward to that.

* * *

This past weekend, 60 Minutes ran a feature on Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln.

Among other things, they discussed the impressive amount of research Daniel Day-Lewis did in preparation for his performance, which has been hailed as "eerily authentic." Interviews with the actor and with Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (whose book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, was partly the basis for the film) specifically noted the choice to act with a high-pitched voice, which was both unlike Day-Lewis's normal speaking voice and also a departure from the Gregory Peck baritone that many people have come to associate with the 16th and greatest President of the United States.

Historians do seem to agree that Lincoln spoke with a higher-pitched voice, while also noting that he died 12 years before Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph, therefore leaving us with no audio recordings. To me, that makes it rather impossible to assess the accuracy of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance. Saying merely that Lincoln's voice was high-pitched is too imprecise. Was it a Steven Tyler-esque tenor or a shrill David Beckham squeak? (Pitch aside, Lincoln probably didn't sound at all like either of those guys.) Since nobody living today ever heard the man speak, nobody can really say how close Day-Lewis gets.

In general, I don't personally place too much trust in history or historical method. As far as I'm concerned, once all eyewitnesses to a moment in time are deceased and no longer available for cross-examination, any history we might thereafter read can be regarded as equal in value to fiction, which is to say that it might well be interesting and edifying to consume, but we should not regard it as true and authoritative in any way that a novel mightn't be. (And don't give me that crap about it being important to study history in order not to repeat the mistakes of our past, when history itself tells us that has never worked before.) At issue is perhaps "truth" itself, which is a larger discussion (is there much of truth to glean even from cross-examining a living witness on a recent event?), but, at the very least, when it comes to pre-20th century history, quite a lot of what most people accept without scrutiny as history probably is fiction, so why not just err on the side of caution and be skeptical about everything?

Take the case of the Brontosaurus, which, I suspect, even today would rank among the top 3 dinosaurs that most people would name when prompted. And yet, it was decades ago that the scientific community determined that "Brontosaurus" was no more than a redundant second name for the Apatosaurus. A recent "All Things Considered" story explained again that the Brontosaurus never existed at all. It became erroneously canonized into public imagination as a result of some highly irresponsible paleontological work that resulted in mismatched dinosaur skulls and skeletons. How much of the rest of what we study as historical truth is actually hacked together from mismatched pieces?


When is Presidents’ Day? | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[...] for the the observance of Washington’s birthday. In many states, including California, where Lincoln’s birthday was formerly a legal holiday, the state holiday on the third Monday of February is now officially [...]

What are all the major (paid) holidays in the U.S.? | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] in an increasing number of states, including California, where it was eliminated, along with Lincoln’s Birthday, as a state holiday by the Schwarzenegger administration in 2009. The matter of jurisdiction is […]