Kushner Replies About Sources

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Tony Kushner acknowledged, in a phone conversation earlier today, a debt to Michael Vorenberg's Final Freedom, which I previously identified as the likely principal source for Kushner's Oscar-nominated Lincoln script. Vorenberg's book, Kushner told me, contains "a very detailed and as far as I know the only finely detailed account of the congressional battle" to pass the 13th amendment, including Secretary of State William Seward's role in hiring some colorful characters to grease the skids. "It's the definitive account of that," Kushner said. "I admire [Vorenberg] enormously as an historian... His book is fantastic."

But Kushner disputed my speculation that Final Freedom was the principal source (if any there be) for Lincoln. Of Final Freedom's importance to writing his script, Kushner would say only that he has "a short list of 20 or 30 books that were significant to me, and Michael Vorenberg's book is certainly one of them." (He read many more books, of course, in the course of his research.)

"I would never take someone's work, make a play or movie about it, and just hope that nobody noticed," Kushner told me. Let me emphasize that I never accused Kushner of doing that. I don't believe that Kushner's use of Final Freedom in crafting his very fine Lincoln screenplay violated any ethical (or legal) principle. Nobody owns history, and nobody should. But I did think it was bad manners for Kushner not to recognize Vorenberg's unique and vital contribution to what we know about how the 13th amendment got passed. Now he has.

The principal source for the Lincoln screenplay, Kushner insisted to me, was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. "No book that I read was as significant" in influencing his script. "Doris's book is a magnificent account of Lincoln as a master politician," Kushner said. "That is the Lincoln that I really wanted to write about." Team of Rivals is, Kushner said, "the book to which I am most indebted," and it was where he first encountered the story of the 13th amendment's passage, though "not in any great detail." Since the 13th amendment story forms the spine of Kushner's narrative, I don't see how he can conclude that Goodwin's book, and not Vorenberg's, was his most important source, even if Goodwin gave him the story in truncated form and his broader theme of Lincoln as a brilliant and inspiring political tactician. At the same time, my more worldly self doesn't see how Kushner can say Goodwin's book wasn't his most important source, given her centrality to the film's marketing strategy and the potential for creating insult. So put me down as respectfully skeptical on that point.

Vorenberg, I should emphasize, does not sign on to this. Here is what Vorenberg said in an e-mail yesterday, after my piece and a similar piece in Slate were posted:

I’m not sure it’s such a stretch to say that the film was adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Certainly there is much of Goodwin’s book that made it into the filmnot simply certain facts from history but the texture of the period and the character of Lincoln and others, especially cabinet members. I do want to make clear that, in my opinion, if Kusher’s screenplay is “adapted,” it wasn’t adapted from my book. I don’t deserve that credit. Bits of my book may have ended up in the screenplay, but so did bits of many other books. I think that Kushner’s screenplay, aside from being a great piece of writing, is a nice synthesis of much historical work, and he deserves credit for getting a very good handle on the vast Lincoln literature. I’m sure that much of that credit also goes to the historical advisors you mention, all of whom I admire and regard as top-notch: Harold Holzer, James M. McPherson, and of course Doris Kearns Goodwin.

There's a lot of genuflecting going on in that paragraph. I interpret that as reflecting Vorenberg's desire not to stir up trouble. But Vorenberg never claimed his book was Kushner's principal source. That claim was mine, and I still think it's true, at least to the extent that any book can be called Lincoln's principal source.

"One of the great joys of working on this," Kushner said, "is I've gotten to read a number of really, really brilliant books, including [Vorenberg's]." After we spoke, Kushner sent me a partial list of the books he read, "entirely or in part," while working six years on the screenplay. "I know I'm leaving off people whose work really helped me, which is why, without the proper time, I am hesitant about doing this," Kushner wrote. "But I heartily recommend everything on this list."

I'll give Kushner's list the final word:

Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865--Library of America 
Lincoln Day By Day--Earl Miers
The Metaphysical Club--Louis Menand
Herndon's Informants and Herndon's Lincoln--Edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis
Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln--Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President--Allen C. Guelzo
Lincoln's Virtues and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman--William Lee Miller
Lincoln--David Herbert Donald
Abraham Lincoln--Carl Sandburg
Battle Cry of Freedom--James M. McPherson
Race and Reunion--David W. Blight
Lincoln's Constitution--Daniel Farber
Abraham Lincoln: A Life--Michael Burlingame
A People's Contest  and The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln--Philip Shaw Paludan
Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power--Richard Carwardine
Lincoln's Melancholy--Joshua Wolf Schenk
Mrs. Lincoln--Catherine Clinton
Mary Todd Lincoln--Jean Baker
Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment--Michael Vorenberg
Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream--Gabor Borrit
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War--Drew Gilpin Faust
Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President--Harold Holzer
Lincoln at Gettysburg--Garry Wills
Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World--David Brion Davis
Reconstruction--Eric Foner
Big Enough To Be Inconsistent--George Fredrickson
Political Liberalism and The Law of Peoples--John Rawls
Lincoln In The Times--David Donald and Harold Holzer
Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment--Edited by Harold Holzer et al.
America's Constitution--Akhil Amar
Encyclopedia of the American Civil War--Edited by David and Jeanne Heidler

Mea culpa, 5:30 p.m.: Rushing off to a meeting earlier today I hit the wrong button and inadvertently published an incomplete version of this article. Substantively it wasn't really different, so there's nothing I need to retract. But neither was it complete. I didn't notice my error until late this afternoon, when I sat down to finish. I apologize for any confusion my clumsy fingers may have caused readers. We don't normally like the patient to leave the operating room before we've had a chance to sew him up.

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