Young Mr. Lincoln. Lincoln trades supplies to the Clay family for books.

Young Mr. Lincoln. Ann Rutledge interrupts Abe’s reading of Blackstone.

Young Mr. Lincoln. Their only meeting, on the riverbank, is like a simulated marriage.

Young Mr. Lincoln. Abe at Ann’s grave, asking for guidance.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Ann finds Abe chasing a pig.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Abe exchanges greetings with Ann.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Ann watches Abe fight a local tough guy who bothered her.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Ann dancing, (middle of screen).

Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Ann on her deathbed.

Young Mr. Lincoln. Abe chops wood for the Clay women while Cassie stirs dinner.

Young Mr. Lincoln. Clay women on their cabin porch.

Lincoln. Seward hires some disreputable types to buy votes

Lincoln. Lincoln tells “parrot” story to Missouri petitioners.

Lincoln. Lincoln tells a vulgar story at Army telegraph headquarters.

Young Mr. Lincoln. The Clay women: Mrs. Clay, Abigail and her baby, and Cassie.



The hysteric, the mother, the natural gal — male fantasies and male theories in
films about Lincoln

by Deborah Tudor

The analysis of the film Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939) in the 1970 Cahiers du Cinéma article concentrates on a limited bundle of relations within the film, explicating them through a psychoanalytic model. In this essay, I would like to briefly conduct a thought experiment by exploring ways that subsequent developments in theory complicate the psychoanalytic gender model that the Cahiers du Cinéma critics use. To do this I will, trace some of the gender complexities across three Lincoln films, two released within a year: Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln In Illinois (Cromwell, 1940) and the contemporary film Lincoln (Spielberg, 2012). This is not a refutation of the Cahiers’ article but rather a sketch of how gender relations around the mythologized fixture of Abraham Lincoln operate across several films and seven decades. By using some critical notions derived from the psychoanalytic field as used in popular culture, I will consider some alternate readings of relations among the categories of woman, law, nature. In addition, I will highlight the way that liminal states and images contained in the narrative of Young Mr. Lincoln provide a different spin on the Cahiers’ reading.         

The two early films develop different versions of an Abe Lincoln. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) focuses on the early career of Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer in Springfield Illinois. By creating a fictional trial where Lincoln successfully defends two young men wrongfully accused of murder, this film establishes the figure of a future president as a folksy, self-educated, clever man who pursues justice while undergoing revelations that force him to redefine concepts of right and wrong. As the Cahiers critique observes, the political dimension of Lincoln’s life, his primary defining characteristic as a historical figure, is pushed to the margins of the film to allow for the growth of a mythology, and politics itself is treated with disdain by characters. In contrast, Abe Lincoln in Illinois[1] [open endnotes in new window] concentrates on the early career of Lincoln as well, but extends the timeframe through the 1858 Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates during the campaign for Illinois senate seat,[2] ending with Lincoln’s farewell to Illinois as he heads to Washington. This film features a highly conflicted Lincoln, reluctant to take up an increasingly public life.

Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012)spotlights the political life of Abraham Lincoln, concentrating on the political machinations required to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and the relationship of this legislation to policies Lincoln’s administration pursued to end the Civil War. Lincoln depicts a man with a highly pragmatic approach to political activity to achieve a moral end, and one whose pursuit of the “right” is embedded deeply in his need to end the Civil War.

Both the earlier films contain subtexts about Lincoln’s development of a sense of public morals and duty, connecting this development to the influence of an abstract “Woman,” a concept that the Cahiers’ article uses as a spine for its analytic frame of Young Mr. Lincoln. In both films, the lost figure of Ann Rutledge, along with complicated absent and present forms of maternity foster a large part of this moral development. The Cahiers article’s use of Woman as an equivalence for Nature sets up a totalizing fantasy for gender in Young Mr. Lincoln. The positioning of women in Abe Lincoln in Illinois emphasizes the maternal and the idealized virgin who died young, Ann Rutledge. However, the figure of Mary Todd, Lincoln’s eventual wife, exists outside both those categories. The narrative identifies her as a negative pole in Lincoln’s life. Since Lincoln covers a later part of Lincoln’s life, Mary Todd Lincoln becomes the most significant female representation in that film, followed only by her dressmaker and companion, a former slave, Mrs. Keckley.

A more recent formulation of the Freudian field and popular culture by Slavoj Zizek (2005) proposes an alternative way of conceptualizing the phallogocentric realm. Derrida uses the term phallogocentric, which combines the words phallic and logocentric to describe a culture that is dominated by a logocentrism heavily marked by patriarchy. Instead of interpreting this phallogocentrism as a cultural operation that places woman outside of and excluded from the realm of law, Zizek offers a different scheme. He concludes that the oft-referenced “feminine secret, the eternally feminine” is typically considered the

“feminine subject that eludes the reign of …the phallogocentric reason, phallic function, and so on.”[3]

However, in his discussion of hysteria, he indicates a “complementary conclusion”: that the hysterical performance of woman is a “mask” with nothing behind it, and so does exist within the phallic function. Zizek offers an alternative to the claim that woman exists beyond phallogocentric regime. In his scheme, the eternal ineffable feminine—the what-lies-beyond the law—is a male fantasy.[4]

Of course he is not alone. Irigaray situates female masquerade as an attempt by a female subject to create a protective barrier around herself. As a woman who has no language to speak her body or her desires, the masquerade of femininity attempts to participate in man’s desire,[5] or in his fears. Historically, we see examples of coded language that do speak desire for many culturally marginalized groups, such as subcultural coding of jewelry placement or clothing accessories like handkerchiefs to express gay identity and desire. If the idea of masquerade is a projection of a male fantasy, perhaps best expressed as “women don’t know themselves, and cannot understand what is happening,” then the fantasy allows males to project their own desires or fears onto women.

Examples of this would include male interpretations of the images of women athletes, whose performance of their muscular bodies often elicits snickering comments about “dykes.” Watching the Women’s National Basketball Association games with a group of young men aptly demonstrated this to me a few years ago. Heterosexual women, of course, would presumably not want to appear powerful, athletic, or aggressive; therefore the men decide that they must be lesbians, projecting their own fantasies of what women should look like onto the athletes.

Furthermore, the men judge women who they see as appropriately feminine, who dress nicely and wear make up, as women putting themselves on show for men. It does not occur to males that women would enjoy clothing and makeup for their own sake; rather, they are “dressing to be noticed” and therefore must want the random attention of men in public. Discussions of these kinds of male fantasies often fall under the pop culture category of “mansplaining,” a rhetorical form in which the world, including gender, is explained from the man’s point of view, expressed as a transcendent, obvious truth. It is an organization of the world through masculine logic, which makes mansplaining a popular understanding of phallogocentrism.[6]

The ontological “explanation” of femininity as beyond Law, existing in Nature, is linked to the Cahiers’ analysis of law as proceeding from nature, a nature both signifying and signified by women in these films. Identifying these constructs as fantasies questions the entire stability of the phallocentric regime, in that if there is nothing out there beyond its limits, the organization of gender under such a regime is flawed. Further, a traditional psychoanalytic reading such as the one in Cahiers, could also be construed as a practice of male fantasy, reproducing the same positioning rather than seeking ways to challenge it. This is indeed the core point of a critique of psychoanalytic theory that has been active for several decades.

I now turn to specific relations discussed in the Cahiers article, extending the discussion across three films to consider the consequences of designating that analysis as patriarchal fantasy.


The developmental political or moral work of Abraham Lincoln in the two earlier films is closely linked with his relationships with women, notably those located in maternal positions and those located in a romanticized nature. As Cahiers article notes, in Young Mr. Lincoln, “Woman” (Cahiers: the “classic (banal) cultural analogy Nature—Woman, in Nature….”) is woven throughout the film, and also finds a primary significance in that

“the promotion of the river to the status of the woman corresponds to the Woman’s disappearance from the sequence.”[7]

Later in the article, the authors state that the River signifies a pledge between Lincoln and the Law.[8] Two women specifically provide Lincoln with a path between Nature and Law: Ann Rutledge and Mrs. Clay.

The initial interaction between Abe and a woman in Young Mr. Lincoln occurs when he obtains his first law book: Blackstone’s Commentaries. In an early New Salem scene, Mrs. Clay, the matriarch of a settler family passing through town, offers to trade a barrel of books left by her father to Abe for a bolt of cloth. This exchange of patrimony includes Blackstone’s Commentaries, which Abe handles reverently. Mrs. Clay has taken care of the books, but hasn’t read them, as we later learn she cannot read, and has no access therefore to Law. We next see the book when Abe is lying by the river,[9] reading and musing over his interpretation of the basic principle of law “right and wrong: that’s all there is to it.” This early, naïve characterization of law stops when Ann Rutledge enters the scene, interrupting his reading. The Cahiers’ authors note the importance of this scene within the overall dynamics of the film as one where the relationship of Abe with Ann (Woman in Nature) initially interrupts his communing with the Law.

This scene opens the subtext of Ann Rutledge’s loss as a central element in the development of Lincoln’s life ambitions, his sense of right and wrong, and his larger understanding of the law. According to Cahiers’ critics, after her death Ann is embodied in the River that mesmerizes Lincoln throughout the film, a river that holds his interest “as if it were a pretty girl” (dialogue). The river also becomes a “ratification of Lincoln’s contract with the Law.”[10] The River is associated with Ann, since the couple’s only meeting in the film occurs on the riverbank, but the river also represents change, and Lincoln’s forward movement: from New Salem to Springfield to Washington, from frontier settler and village merchant to country lawyer to politician to President.

This forward movement is accompanied by a recognition that the law is more than just right versus wrong, a naïve statement that young Abe makes. Blackstone’s Commentaries links culturally developed codes of law as an outgrowth of “natural law.” In the 19th century, natural law was considered to be a series of unchanging moral truths. A divine being, the creator of mankind, possessed of a demonstrable existence was the foundation of a belief system that founded divine and natural laws. Man’s faculty of reason allowed him to know and follow these moral truths, which were regarded as the foundation of both Christian beliefs and civil law.[11] Thus, nature as a creation of the divine, could be seen as a metaphor for the intricate yet demonstrable laws of Providence.

The film’s trial sequence foregrounds this question through the figure of Mrs. Clay as discussed below. The fact that a body of law exceeds such concepts moves it away from a relation with nature, a factor that complicates the reading of the river as an associated symbol of Lincoln’s status with respect to Law.

Several scenes demonstrate the Cahiers reading of nature and the river. In one, Ann and Lincoln converse briefly, and in their conversation, Abe answers a question with the phrase “I do.” Ann carries a basket of flowers, and the lighting is high key and soft, creating a type of visual tenderness echoed in the dialogue, emphasizing the fact that her flowers and his response mimic a wedding. The next scene shows Lincoln standing at Ann’s snowy grave by the river. He uses a stick to determine his future, and it falls toward Ann’s grave, which means he leaves for Springfield and the Law. Ann’s spectral guidance comes from a realm far beyond the phallocentric and indicates an enduring and fixed fantasy of Ann that Lincoln carries with him. In the background, the river flows, with its connotations of change and forward movement providing a contradiction to the stasis of male fantasy. Cahiers interprets this scene as a woman/nature symbiosis that pushes Lincoln onto his journey into the realm of patriarchal Law. Although the setting looks deeply wintry, Lincoln carries flowers, indicating that the time frame of this scene operates within another liminality the end of winter/beginning of Spring and the end of New Salem/beginning of Springfield law career.

The clear association of woman with nature does not suggest an existence beyond the realm of the symbolic or of law, as “nature” itself is a historically determined construct. So aligning women with nature doesn’t place them outside of a masculine realm. Of course, it’s no longer a masculine realm if it includes women as well, indicating the instability of psychoanalytic theories deployed in the popular culture field.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois depicts a more extended relationship between Ann Rutledge and Lincoln in this film, which includes numerous fictional scenes of Lincoln’s career as a shopkeeper in New Salem. His first encounter with Ann occurs when a load of pigs he is ferrying to New Orleans on a flatboat escapes. He catches one in front of her. They exchange introductions and later renew acquaintance when Lincoln returns to New Salem to live. His first day in the town, he fights and defeats a bully who was bothering Ann as she was managing her father’s tavern. Ann is already “spoken for,” however, so Lincoln watches her from afar.

Ann receives perfect and perfectly lovely, soft three-point portrait lighting in these scenes, becoming a romanticized ideal. Her boyfriend leaves to work elsewhere, and Abe finally declares his love. While Ann is considering this offer, she collapses at a square dance, signaling the onset of her fatal illness. She is laid on the floor, wearing a white dress, with flowers in her hair, looking exactly like a virginal corpse. A deathbed scene follows where she enjoins Abe to think of nothing but “winning that election.” The implicit goad of Ann Rutledge to Abe’s ambitions and public political life is here made explicit and Ann’s spectral presence will return in this film to further guide Lincoln onto the path to the White House and toward marriage with Mary Todd.

Ann has a dual association with nature in Abe Lincoln In Illinois. The lighting gives her an ethereal air but her two initial scenes, one with escaped pig and one at a fight outside a tavern, situate her in the earthier side of Nature. Additionally, Ann has an element of labor to her image, since we do see that she helps run her father’s tavern, and that he leaves her in charge when he is absent. All of these elements position Ann in a more complex way than does Young Mr. Lincoln. However it is her ethereal idealized aspect that falls into the “what lies beyond” of the phallogocentric, a male fantasy of/for Lincoln and the audience. The “earthy” part of this representation, especially that part associated with labor, speaks both to a material understanding of white women’s position on the Nineteenth century frontier and to the idealized fantasy. It is a superficial acknowledgement of labor but also a part of the idealized labor contained in the pioneer woman spirit: woman as helpmeet.

Ann’s final return in the film occurs after Abe has jilted Mary Todd. He returns to a now-abandoned New Salem and in his mind’s eye sees her walking through a field. His stepmother’s admonition “He that doeth the will of God abideth forever” is heard on the soundtrack. Here Ann is joined to the maternal, something that does not occur in Young Mr. Lincoln. Her image, her meaning for Lincoln, shifts positions: angelic yet earthy young woman, woman as labor and tavern keeper, angelic dead virgin, woman as nature/mother together sending him back to Mary and onto the road to Washington.

The Cahiers article also situates the Clay family women as farmwomen standing in Nature. They dress plainly and work hard on their family homestead. They are primarily seen in nature/frontier settings: a covered wagon, porch of their farmhouse, camping outside Springfield. For example, in Young Mr. Lincoln, the only indoor scenes featuring the Clay women are those that occur during the trial of the two sons. They are also associated with labor, productivity, self-reliance, and the formation of the family.

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