lincolnComing to HBO tonight, Monday, April 13: LIVING WITH LINCOLN

Peter Kunhardt and Brian Oakes’ look at one family’s role in preserving a presidential legacy makes its debut as part of the cable network’s popular nonfiction programming.

The family in question is Kunhardt’s own, making this a personal exploration of five generations of familial duty to “the collection,” a largely photo-based archive of all things Abraham Lincoln that was begun by the director’s great-grandfather, Frederick Hill Meserve. Born the same year the Civil War ended, Meserve started amassing his collection to illustrate his father’s war diaries, and soon found himself in possession of the definitive photographic record of the 16th US President, iconic images that would go on to serve as the basis of our popular conception of his likeness on Mt Rushmore, the $5 bill, and the penny. But Kunhardt, who narrates the film, discusses Meserve’s role as the originator of the collection, his focus is largely on Meserve’s primary collaborator, his daughter Dorothy, Peter Kunhardt’s grandmother. Dorothy, a children’s book author and illustrator best known for PAT THE BUNNY, emerges as a fascinating figure full of ideas and aspirations but also possessed of stifling self-doubt that long delayed her book about Lincoln’s assassination. Interwoven with her story is that of Lincoln and his own relationship with his family, as revealed through the historical collection. While the juxtapositions are sometimes a bit clunky and perhaps indulge in some overly speculative psychologizing, Kunhardt’s film still succeeds in conveying the deep significance – and costs – of this generational duty on the Meserve-Kunhardt family.

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