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The Lincoln Memorial and American life by Christopher A. Thomas . Princeton University Press, 2002.

ISBN hardback 069101194X, paperback . pp 256. List price: Hardback: , $24.95, paperback , .

Reviewed by Sarah Anne Heaton, Lecturer in English

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Posted 11 January 2005

Christopher Thomas reads the Lincoln Memorial as a text from a variety of approaches. Not only does he trace the history and politics surrounding the project from its inception, design, construction through to the reception of the memorial itself, he also considers the memorial as an axis for a re-visioning of aspects of American History. In particular he argues that the memorial raises questions about the race and the legacy of the civil war. Thomas shows that the memorial rather than simply being a symbol of America is within itself a deeply contested site that raises questions about America itself.

The memorial is also posited as on the cusp of traditionalism and modernism thus allowing it to be seen as a literal site of transition, fluidity and changing thought both at a more general level of western philosophy as well as concepts of America and what it is to be an American. Finally, Thomas attends to the negotiation and ritualisation of the memorial both as a public and private site. Thus much of the book is bound up in issues of both public and private ideas of identity

Particularly appealing is both the book’s attention to theory, particularly of modernism, and that the reading was architecturally impelled. Thomas uses recently formulated and exciting theoretical approaches to architecture and space. He shows the reader that the site of the memorial is one of contesting narratives both historical, political and also in terms of its daily negotiation and habitation on public and private terms. Thus a site that is potentially weighted in fixed meaning is shown to be generative, fluid and continually changing.  

Thomas’s theorising of the memorial is complex, exciting and rigorously worked through. He approaches major aspects of America’s cultural and political history through the memorial giving a distinctive perspective which, because of its clarity and uniqueness, is not only illuminating but fixes events in the mind. Because of this the text is suitable for students at A level and access who want a distinctive and illuminating approach. Read through the memorial the complexity of different aspects of American history and what it means to be an American are easily understood.

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