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The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
11-25-2012, 11:33 AM (This post was last modified: 11-25-2012 11:53 AM by Dave Taylor.)
Post: #1
The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Yesterday in the mail I got copies of some of Philip Van Doren Stern's material from the University of Oregon's Special Collections. Stern was the author of the 1939 book, The Man Who Killed Lincoln. Though written as fiction, Stern did a lot of in depth research on the matter as his background was in journalism. The materials I received weren't what I was expecting. It is mostly correspondences with Stern regarding the publication and advertising of his book, but there were still a few interesting tid bits like the letter regarding Edwin Pitts I posted on my blog.

While most letters applaud Stern for his book, there is letter sent to Stern while he was assumedly shopping the book around for a publisher. Random House loved the book and bought it up quickly, but an executive at Simon and Schuster hated it and tore the book apart:

"Dear Phill
I have read your book carefully. It is a perfectly competent job but I do not see why you wrote it. It doesn't seem to me that there was any necessity for such a book. The facts of the assassination and capture are pretty well known and the very minor importance of the event has been pretty well assessed at this time.If you had brought to the job some really profound interpretation of Booth's character or some hitherto unknown facts or the kind of passionate detail we find in the early Feuchtwanger, then all would have been OK. But it seems to me that Booth's character is so simple and at the same time so stupid that not even a genius could make him interesting. As far as I can see, he is simply a fanatical southern patriot with a vague oedipus complex plus a desire for self-exhibition. These three traits are so easily brought out that once you have done so in the first twenty or thirty pages, there is nothing left to do except the business of striaght narrative. This in itself would be thrilling enough if the story was not so well known. But, after all, we know perfectly well that Lincoln is going to be assassinated and Booth captured. For me therefore, the book is a failure through no fault of your own. I just can't understand why an intelligent person like yourself should waste his time on a silly and childish fool like Booth."

The letter goes on, giving specific page numbers and criticisms. Stern sent a reply to the executive first thanking him for his revisions, and then defending the need for a book. He took, "violent exception" to two of the executive's points: that the assassination of Lincoln was of "minor importance", and that the story is so well known that it is not worth telling.

"Come, come, Kip!" Stern writes, "You can't really be such a devotee of the invented fictional plot as to believe that the reader can be interested only in being kept on the tenterhooks because he doesn't know whether the hero will arrive in time to pull Little Nell off the railroad tracks before the locomotive crushes her tender white body"

Stern ends his rightfully defensive letter with the following, "A more ungrateful letter than this would be hard to imagine. And yet I do appreciate your reading the manuscript and your revision suggestions are invaluable. I just couldn't resist the opportunity to answer back to an unfavorable reviewer before the book is published. After it comes out custom decrees that it is only decent for the author to maintain a glum silence."

Thank goodness more people didn't feel as this Simon and Schuster executive. Stern's book sold quite well, was excerpted in Reader's Digest (a big score for publicity), and was turned into radio dramas and a stage show. A couple times it looked like it would be turned into a movie, but that never came to fruition.

Stern would go on to write more on Lincoln (The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln) and the Civil War (An End to Valor: The Last Days of the Civil War), but is most remembered today for his Christmas short story, "The Greatest Gift", which was turned into the classic holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life.
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11-25-2012, 12:08 PM
Post: #2
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Boy does that executive at Simon & Schuster sound familiar. We've had a few doors shut in our face saying the subject is well worn and of little interest. I think everyone on this forum heartily disagrees with that premise.

One of the best examples is what Tom Clancey went through to get "hunt for Red October" published. For all those writers and would-be writers, expect alot of negativity, but all you need is to find the right publisher that "gets it".

Thanks for the post Dave. Did you say you had a blog????
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11-25-2012, 12:49 PM
Post: #3
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Interesting stuff Dave. It's a good thing these authors kept those kinds of letters, especially as we know how the books were received. If I remember correctly, the author William Styron once worked as a low-level editor/reader for McGraw-Hill. He rejected Thor Heyerdahl's book Kon-Tiki. He wrote "this is a long, solemn, tedious Pacific voyage best suited to some kind of drastic abridgement in a journal like the National Geographic." Styron was so embarrassed by his mistake that he had the character "Stingo" in Sophie's Choice make the same mistake. Stryon was fired from McGraw-Hill for throwing water balloons out the window.

Best
Rob

Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell

I want the respect of intelligent men, but I will choose for myself the intelligent.
--Carl Sandburg
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11-25-2012, 01:19 PM
Post: #4
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
(11-25-2012 11:33 AM)Dave Taylor Wrote:  Stern would go on to write more on Lincoln (The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln) and the Civil War (An End to Valor: The Last Days of the Civil War), but is most remembered today for his Christmas short story, "The Greatest Gift", which was turned into the classic holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life.

Thanks Dave, a nice little treasure of information about one of my favorite movies.

So when is this "Old Enough To Know Better" supposed to kick in?
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11-25-2012, 06:09 PM
Post: #5
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
On a lighter note, I believe that Stern also wrote a book on Christmas during the mid-1800s that we used frequently in our early days of producing Christmas events and newsletters at Surratt House.
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12-18-2012, 01:45 PM
Post: #6
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
There is something of additional interest in Stearn’s book. Stern repeated an allegation by Hertz that Robert Todd Lincoln burned some of his father’s papers because of treason by a cabinet member.

See Stern, Philip Van Doren. The Man Who Killed Lincoln. New York, NY: The Literary Guild of America, 1939, p. 406; Hertz, Emanuel. The Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon. New York, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, Inc., 1940, pp. 17-18.
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12-19-2012, 02:12 PM
Post: #7
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
I think we should also note that Dr. Mark Neely called this story the "purest bunk." I believe Nicholas Murray Butler said this happened in 1923, but Robert had donated the entire collection to the Library of Congress in 1919.

Jason Emerson writes that "it is an exciting and emotional story; the only problem, however, is that it is not true."
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12-19-2012, 09:04 PM
Post: #8
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
I have to agree with Roger on this. Burning papers was certainly not uncommon for people (very few of Chester Arthur's personal papers exist, as an example), but setting aside that Hertz was about as trustworthy as a $2 watch, most scholars today have pretty much laid the general idea of RTL burning papers to rest.

Best
Rob

Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell

I want the respect of intelligent men, but I will choose for myself the intelligent.
--Carl Sandburg
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12-20-2012, 12:40 PM
Post: #9
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Is it a coincidence that this story first came to light at about the same time as Eisenschiml's book was published?
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12-20-2012, 02:30 PM
Post: #10
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Excellent point!
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12-20-2012, 05:31 PM
Post: #11
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Stern did do a tremendous job of retracing Booth's route and taking pictures, though. I've found six different shots of the Garrett house attributed to Stern. They provide some of the last glimpses of the house's life as it finally collapsed between April 1937 and April 1940 (most likely in the 1937 - 1938 time period).

Come to the Surratt Conference in March to see 'em!
(Shamless plug...)
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12-21-2012, 04:23 AM
Post: #12
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Looking forward to the conference. I know you have worked diligently on your material.
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01-21-2013, 05:00 PM
Post: #13
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
I have a 5x7 of one of Stern's photo prints of the Garrett house , with his writing in pencil on the verso. It's the very one in his book. A play based on his JWB book was produced shortly after its publication, starring Richard Waring. It bombed. Many yrs. ago I discvd that a typewritten copy of the script and notes for its adaption to the stage are in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the NYPL (at Lincoln Center). The library will not allow it to be reproduced without permission of Stern's descendants. I think they're all gone now. Fortunately, Stern gave me written permission to get a copy. They microfilmed it for me, and from that I had it printed out on paper. It's one of the rarest scripts in my large collection of plays about Booth and the assassination. Stern died a couple of years later. Sorry, I will not copy it for anyone. It isn' t really a bad play, tho dated by today's standards. But it is somewhat sympathetic to Booth, which no doubt accounted for its failure. Waring wasn't surprised that it failed. "After all," he told me, "the son of a ***** shot Lincoln!"
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01-23-2013, 10:02 PM
Post: #14
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
Robert Lincoln, may or may not, have burned papers, but it is known that he encouraged his Todd family relations to destroy letters. According to Emily Huntington Stuart, the wife of John Todd Stuart Jr.:

"My eldest son, George, at the time, was collecting autographs. He was probably ten or eleven years old. Hearing from Mrs. Stuart that my father-in-law had been requested by Robert Lincoln to destroy all family and confidential or business lettres, appertaining to either Mr. or Mrs. Lincoln, and also hearing that he was complying with the request as rapidly as possible, by burning the same, I gave George permission to write his grandfather, asking for autographs of famous men he knew."
John Todd Stuart granted his grandson's request and gave him one letter from Lincoln and one from Judge Davis.

This story was published in the Illinois Society DAR genealogy records, 1940-1941.
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01-08-2023, 04:34 PM
Post: #15
RE: The Man Who Wrote the Man Who Killed Lincoln
(11-25-2012 11:33 AM)Dave Taylor Wrote:  Yesterday in the mail I got copies of some of Philip Van Doren Stern's material from the University of Oregon's Special Collections. Stern was the author of the 1939 book, The Man Who Killed Lincoln. Though written as fiction, Stern did a lot of in depth research on the matter as his background was in journalism. The materials I received weren't what I was expecting. It is mostly correspondences with Stern regarding the publication and advertising of his book, but there were still a few interesting tid bits like the letter regarding Edwin Pitts I posted on my blog.

While most letters applaud Stern for his book, there is letter sent to Stern while he was assumedly shopping the book around for a publisher. Random House loved the book and bought it up quickly, but an executive at Simon and Schuster hated it and tore the book apart:

"Dear Phill
I have read your book carefully. It is a perfectly competent job but I do not see why you wrote it. It doesn't seem to me that there was any necessity for such a book. The facts of the assassination and capture are pretty well known and the very minor importance of the event has been pretty well assessed at this time.If you had brought to the job some really profound interpretation of Booth's character or some hitherto unknown facts or the kind of passionate detail we find in the early Feuchtwanger, then all would have been OK. But it seems to me that Booth's character is so simple and at the same time so stupid that not even a genius could make him interesting. As far as I can see, he is simply a fanatical southern patriot with a vague oedipus complex plus a desire for self-exhibition. These three traits are so easily brought out that once you have done so in the first twenty or thirty pages, there is nothing left to do except the business of striaght narrative. This in itself would be thrilling enough if the story was not so well known. But, after all, we know perfectly well that Lincoln is going to be assassinated and Booth captured. For me therefore, the book is a failure through no fault of your own. I just can't understand why an intelligent person like yourself should waste his time on a silly and childish fool like Booth."

The letter goes on, giving specific page numbers and criticisms. Stern sent a reply to the executive first thanking him for his revisions, and then defending the need for a book. He took, "violent exception" to two of the executive's points: that the assassination of Lincoln was of "minor importance", and that the story is so well known that it is not worth telling.

"Come, come, Kip!" Stern writes, "You can't really be such a devotee of the invented fictional plot as to believe that the reader can be interested only in being kept on the tenterhooks because he doesn't know whether the hero will arrive in time to pull Little Nell off the railroad tracks before the locomotive crushes her tender white body"

Stern ends his rightfully defensive letter with the following, "A more ungrateful letter than this would be hard to imagine. And yet I do appreciate your reading the manuscript and your revision suggestions are invaluable. I just couldn't resist the opportunity to answer back to an unfavorable reviewer before the book is published. After it comes out custom decrees that it is only decent for the author to maintain a glum silence."

Thank goodness more people didn't feel as this Simon and Schuster executive. Stern's book sold quite well, was excerpted in Reader's Digest (a big score for publicity), and was turned into radio dramas and a stage show. A couple times it looked like it would be turned into a movie, but that never came to fruition.

Stern would go on to write more on Lincoln (The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln) and the Civil War (An End to Valor: The Last Days of the Civil War), but is most remembered today for his Christmas short story, "The Greatest Gift", which was turned into the classic holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life.

Dave, thanks for this informative thread on Stern and the rejection letter he received from an executive at Simon and Schuster who hated "The Man Who Killed Lincoln".

Stern himself was an editor, historian and novelist. In 1941 in an article for the Virginia Quarterly Review(VQR) titled "Battles Long Ago" he reviews the following:
ISSUE: Winter 1941
A Man Named Grant. By Helen Todd. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50. For Us, the Living. By Bruce Lancaster. New York: Frederick a. Stokes Company. $2.75. In the Shadow of Lincoln’s Death. By Otto Eisenschiml. New York: Wilfred Funk, Incorporated. $3.00. The Great American Myth. By George S. Bryan. New York: Carrick and Evans. $3.75. My Dear Lady. By Marjorie Barstow Greenbie. New York: Whittlesey House. $2.75.

He uses these reviews as examples in this context. " .... Now that three-quarters of a century have passed since the end of the Civil War, and the men who participated in it have dwindled to a handful of very old survivors, it is to be expected that two kinds of writing about it will become even more important than they were before. We can expect a flood of treatises which probe the details of events that have long ago been covered in essence, and we can look for a true literary expression of the human significance of the war. It is only after such a long period of time that writing concerning a great historical event can reach its fullest development. When personal issues are removed by the deaths of the participants, and no one has anything to lose by the publicizing of long-suppressed facts, historians are able to make those facts known to the world."
Stern discusses the novelized biography that needs "spadework" and the fine line between biography and historical fiction. https://www.vqronline.org/battles-long-ago

Stern worked for many publishers as an editor. I wonder how many manuscripts he rejected. From reading about Stern and his writing, he put historical accuracy first.
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