Monday, April 4, 2011

The Heirs of Nancy Hanks

Tom Hanks, Relative Lincolnian

The following post is first of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

There are lots of ways to talk about Abraham Lincoln, and historians are always finding new ones. The early 21st century witnessed book-length efforts to portray him as a gay man, clinically depressed, and a proto-Darwinian in his thinking (Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on February 12, 1809, spawning bicentennial commentary).[1] But here’s a simple way of thinking about Lincoln that I’d like to deploy in the pages that follow: quintessential institutionalist. No man had more confidence in the power of formally constituted organizations as a means to make life better.
The most obvious, but by no means only, manifestation of this institutionalism was his confidence in the positive power of the federal government. Lincoln devotees of the liberal stripe are fond of quoting his famous maxim that “the legitimate object of government is do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.” One can argue about what really constitutes legitimate, and press hard on need. Lincoln himself went on to note in this fragment, unpublished in his lifetime, that “the best framed and best administered governments are necessarily expensive; while by errors in frame and administration most of them are more onerous than they need to be, and some of them are very oppressive.” But he was able to offer some core examples that remain as cogent as ever: “making and maintaining roads, bridges and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; and disposing of deceased men’s property.”[2] If these are not legitimate needs, then nothing is.
Quoting such a passage is a great lever for turning Lincoln into Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and ever since poet Carl Sandburg’s multivolume biography of the 1920s and 30s, many have done so.[3] But Lincoln can be stretched in plenty of other directions, too. For example, he was a fervent apostle of industrial capitalism, who, as a wealthy lawyer, frequently represented large corporations with a clear conscience. He was an Illinois man, a devoted Republican Party man, and a man whose same faith in government to provide for “the helpless young and afflicted” also led him to command the largest military the world had ever seen, which he used to prosecute a war of unprecedented scale and destructiveness.
Interestingly, about the only institutions Lincoln seemed to lack real zeal for were religious ones. While many historians have noted a deep spiritual vein in his thinking, and believe it increased in intensity over the course of his life, Lincoln was an indifferent churchgoer at best.[4] Born a Baptist, he rented a pew at a Presbyterian Church, largely at his wife’s insistence. But Lincoln took rumors of his infidelity during his first Congressional campaign seriously enough to publish a rebuttal that he himself could not support a candidate who he knew to be “an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”[5] (How’s that for a non-denial denial?) True to his word, Lincoln frequently invoked traditional Christian language for the rest of his life while actively sidestepping doctrinal issues or professing denominational loyalty. He wasn’t opposed to organized religion. He just wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as he was most other institutions in American life.
Perhaps this makes Lincoln sound like a pretty conventional, even bland, guy. But it’s worth pointing out that there were plenty of people of his time—and ever since—with decidedly different values. Lincoln came of age in a decidedly Jacksonian political culture in which government was widely seen, in Illinois and much of the rest of the country, as a problem, not a solution. Corporations were tools of oppression.  Political parties were (newly) acceptable, but the dominant party was that of latter-day Jeffersonians, the Democratic Party, and Lincoln was a Whig, only reluctantly becoming a Republican long after it was clear to many of his peers that the Whigs were no longer a viable political organization. Lincoln’s youth also corresponded with a major theological upheaval known as “The Second Great Awakening,” in which emerging evangelical churches and doctrines pushed aside established ones and edged their way into social and even political debates. Insofar as Lincoln’s religious thought reflected any religious orthodoxy, it was the Calvinism of his New England branch in his ancestry.[6] So it’s safe to say he that in the major public issues of his time, he was always a bit out of the mainstream.
And yet he managed to win just about every popularity contest he ever entered. That included four terms in the state legislature, a term U.S. House of Representatives, and election to the captaincy in the state militia during his military service, an honor he described as “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”[7] The one major election he lost, his U.S. Senate race with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, proved closer than any informed observer could have safely predicted at the outset. The point bears emphasizing: Lincoln was not simply respected and admired: he was deeply liked by a great many who knew him personally and a great many who did not. The stories attesting to this are legion, as are the jokes, many grounded in self-effacing humor, which have been attributed to him. (“I suppose God loves ugly people,” he reputedly said. “That’s why he makes so many of them.”)
Of course, many people hated Lincoln, too, one enough to kill him. Lincoln took significantly less than half of the popular vote in the divisive presidential election of 1860. Even now, when he comes as close as being beloved by all of the people all of the time, he can still provoke bitter polemics over his racism or his big-government policies.[8] But no one has embodied the pursuit of individual happiness through the common good more vividly than Lincoln, so much so that he is perhaps the inevitable standard of measurement for anyone remotely like him.
Like his distant relative, Tom Hanks. That’s Hanks as in Nancy Hanks, the maiden name of Lincoln’s mother. She was one of eight Nancy Hankses born during the 1780s; Lincoln himself, who believed he inherited his ambition, alertness and powers of analysis from his mother, believed she was illegitimate (he understood her to be the child of Lucy Hanks and “a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter”). A distant cousin of Lincoln, the main trunk of the Tom Hanks’s family tree emerges with his great-grandfather, Daniel Boone Hanks, who left his native Kentucky (where Nancy Hanks married Thomas Lincoln, and where Abraham Lincoln was born) and migrated to California in 1873.[9]
Hanks has made allusions to his famous ancestor. As generations of children know, he is the voice of Woody the cowboy in the Toy Story saga. In Toy Story II (1999), Woody meets his love interest in the Jessie the Cowgirl (voice of Joan Cusack) who exclaims “Sweet Mother of Abraham Lincoln!” upon meeting him.  In a 1990 episode of Saturday Night Live, Hanks, who’s hosting, pretends to limp onstage with a bad knee, recounting his recent triumphs when suddenly confronted by the Great Emancipator—which does not appear to be a good sign:

Abraham Lincoln (offstage): They can't hear you, Tom.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self (looking around ):  What? What? Who said that? [runs into the hall and finds Abraham Lincoln ] Mr. President, it's you ! Tell me… what's happening? Why can't I make them understand?

Abraham Lincoln: Because they exist on a different plane from us, Tom.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self: You mean … all that pain ... what happened backstage … that I bumped my knee? I'm… dead?

Abraham Lincoln: No, Tom. You're an incredible pussy.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self: I'm frightened, Mr. President ... I don't like this place. I want to go back!

Abraham Lincoln: Then you must cling to life, Tom. You must want to live.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self: Oh, but I do! I do, Mr. President. I want to live![10]

He spins back to life, ready to resume hosting the show.

As such silly jokes suggest, would be foolish to make too much of this connection. Or the two mens’ affinity for Shakespeare. Or difficult childhoods in blended families that led both to leave them decisively behind. Or even their submerged religiosity and tendency to go along with their wives’ traditions. Nevertheless, there is a clear and useful affinity to be noted between Hanks and Lincoln: they both symbolized, for millions of Americans of their time, the viability and decency of national institutions when they were being called into active question. Neither man is typically described in these terms. But to a great extent, their institutionalism lies at the core of their appeal.
As with Lincoln, one can begin to appreciate what makes Hanks both popular and distinctive by comparing him with his peers. Clint Eastwood’s entire career has been premised on skepticism toward big institutions, whether they’re movie studios or governments. (Yes, he has enjoyed stable good relations with Warner Brothers, but that’s because he maintains his autonomy with his own production company. And when he ran for office, it was for a single term as mayor.) From Dirty Harry to Gran Torino, his characters are constantly fighting authority figures even as they’re chasing down bad guys. Denzel Washington’s vision of history is conceived in terms of families, literal and figurative. In his vision of republican fatherhood, good parents and mentors make dutiful public servants. Washington has more confidence in government than Eastwood does, but his locus, literally and figuratively, is closer to home. Daniel Day-Lewis plays rugged individualists, even more than Eastwood, who typically tries to fashion alternative families among casts of misfits. But Day-Lewis characters can’t be contained, and attempts at solidarity—personal, political, or both—almost always fail.
Hanks is different. Fathers, children and lovers have always figured in his work, particularly his early work, but they’ve never really been central and are as likely to be a hindrance as a help. Families are often part of the story. But teams, broadly construed, are close to his heart, particularly after he began to develop to the Hollywood leverage to make this clear. No less than Day-Lewis or Eastwood, Hanks has an ego, and his characters typically occupy some kind of leadership position. But they operate within a system of some sort, and are committed not only to working within it, but making it better. There’s an emphatic spirit of republicanism at large in Hanks’s America: his characters represent, serve, and act on that basis.
It’s a powerful vision, and it’s made him a powerful man. By the early 21st century, Hanks was the single most successful actor in U.S. history, with box office grosses that will have crossed $4 billion by the time you read these words.[11] A surprising number of lines from his movies—“There’s no crying in baseball!”; “Houston, we have a problem,”; “Life is like a box of chocolates”; “Stupid is as stupid does”—became pop culture slogans. He has also become an entertainment impresario with his own production company (Playtone, named after a fictional record label he created for the 1996 film That Thing You Do!), and an active producer whose programming ranged across movies, television and the Internet, where he developed a pioneering online video series, Electric City. He repeatedly worked with the premier Hollywood mogul of our time, his friend Steven Spielberg, and did so as an equal. Hanks makes mocking references to his “crack team of show-business experts,” but the irony of the phrase can’t quite hide the reality of his circumstances.[12]
Amid his wide-ranging interests, history is central. Hanks was the executive producer (along with Spielberg, with whom he collaborated in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan) of the 2001 World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, and a producer of its successor, The Pacific (2010). His lifelong interest in the space program—and appearance in the 1995 film Apollo 13—led to the 1998 cable series From the Earth to the Moon, which he helped write, produce, direct, and made cameo appearances as an actor. As of this writing, he is developing yet another series on the Kennedy assassination. These are among the reasons the esteemed journalist and historian Douglas Brinkley wrote a 2010 essay on Hanks as historian[13]—a subject that merits book-length treatment. Here, though, our focus will be on Hanks the actor, where his vision first crystallized. It’s a vision that’s surprisingly clear—and just plain surprising in having materialized at all.
Next: From modest beginnings to modest stardom

[1]C.A.Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (New York: The Free Press, 2005); Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life; James Lander, Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions about Race, Science and Religion (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).
[2]Abraham Lincoln, “Fragments on Government,” in Lincoln: Speeches, Letters, Miscellaneous Writings, ed. By Don Feherenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), 301-302.
[3] Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 2 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1939). For an analysis of Sandburg’s Lincoln biography as a document of New Deal liberalism, see Jim Cullen, The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 29-64.
[4] Writers who have paid sustained attention to Lincoln’s religiosity include Garry Wills, William Miller, and Richard Carwardine. For a good brief description of his nominal Presbyterianism, see Ronald C. White, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 128-ff.
[5]Abraham Lincoln, “Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity,” in Speeches and Writings, 140.
[6] Lincoln’s strain of Calvinism is discussed in the above-mentioned sources. For a brief distillation, see Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 97-202.
[7]Lincoln quoted in David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 44.
[8] See, for example Lerone Bennett, Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000); Thomas DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (New York: Forum, 2002).
[9]Donald, 19-20; David Gardner, The Tom Hanks Enigma: The Biography of the World’s Most Intriguing Movie Star (London: Blake, 2007), 4-7.
[11] See the respected website Box Office Mojo for the latest statistics: (accessed March 22, 2011). Gardner cites Hanks as the leading box office star of all time (xiii). Hanks has also been a longtime fixture of the Harris Poll cited in previous chapters, ranking #1 in 2002, 2004, and 2005. See (accessed February 5, 2011)
[12] Kurt Anderson, “The Tom Hanks Phenomenon: How Did He Pull It Off?” The New Yorker, December 17, 1998. Accessed via (accessed March 24, 2011)
[13] Douglas Brinkley, “How Tom Hanks Became America’s Historian in Chief,” Time, March 6, 2010. Accessed via Gale’s “Popular Magazines” databases (March 22, 2011).