Jason Emerson, an award-winning historian and author from SUNY Potsdam’s Class of 1999, will return to SUNY Potsdam to give a public lecture titled “Lincoln the Inventor: The Story and Influence of His Mechanical Mind,” on Thursday, March 12, at 7 p.m. in the Barrington Student Union.
A book signing of his works, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln” and “Lincoln the Inventor” will follow the lecture.
He will also present “Keys to Good History: Solid Research and Compelling Writing” on Friday, March 13, at 10 a.m. in the College Writing Center in Carson Hall 106 and “‘The Madness of Mary Lincoln’: Responding to Feminist Critiques” at 12:30 p.m. in the eighth floor lounge of Raymond Hall.
Emerson began researching Lincoln in 1994 when he worked as a Student Conservation Association research assistant at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, IL, and later as a seasonal park ranger. Emerson became fascinated by Lincoln’s intellectual development, his political philosophy and his belief in American greatness.
Emerson says that 200 years after Lincoln’s birth, there is still much to learn from his life.
“I prefer to research aspects of Lincoln relatively unknown or unappreciated. For example, my first two published scholarly essays were about Abraham Lincoln’s poetry,” he notes.
Emerson has also done research on Mary Lincoln. The issue of her mental health had not been examined in 20 years before he published “The Madness of Mary Lincoln.” Her life, he says, is misunderstood. The fuel for his book about her was his discovery of about 20 “lost” letters, bearing on the state of her mental health. After a five-month search, he found the letters in a steamer trunk in the attic of Robert Todd Lincoln’s personal attorney. Emerson donated the letters to the Library of Congress.
The letters were particularly significant since Robert had burned many family papers, which he considered too personal for public consumption.
“That was part of his Victorian-era belief in family privacy. For example, it’s quite clear he burned his mother’s collection of all the letters between her and her husband from courtship to assassination,” said Emerson. “But Robert also knew and respected his father’s place in American history, and he did not burn anything of public interest or value.”
Instead, Robert donated those materials to the Library of Congress.
Illinois State Historical Society gave Emerson’s “The Madness of Mary Lincoln” its 2007 Book of the Year award. Publishing the book, however, was not easy. Six agents and six publishers rejected his manuscript before he received a contract. It is now his publisher’s best selling book.
“One always hopes his book sells well and is appreciated for the hard work that went into its creation, but to win such an award is not only an honor but a great validation of effort,” said Emerson.
The award is even more significant in light of controversy about Mary Lincoln in general and her mental health in particular.
Robert’s role in destroying or preserving his parents’ papers intrigued Emerson, who is now working on a biography of the Lincoln’s oldest son.
“A few stories of Robert’s supposedly burning his father’s papers have been proven false, although the stories maddeningly endure,” Emerson noted.
Emerson looks forward to meeting with students and describes the impact a returning alumnus had on his experience at SUNY Potsdam.
“I remember during my senior year, the writer T.C. Boyle came to campus and met with the English majors in a small group setting, and then gave a public lecture. It was not only invigorating, but incredibly educational to talk to him and listen to him, and I hope maybe my visit can stimulate students as T.C. Boyle stimulated me,” he said.
Emerson’s lectures are free of charge, and the public is welcome to attend. For more information about Emerson, visit www. jasonemerson.com.