Howard Wright has spent years trying to capture Honest Abe. By day, Wright is a science teacher and department head in West Hartford, CT. But in his spare time, the six-foot, three-inch tall Wright embodies the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, as a Living Historian. Wright will next appear at New-York Historical on Saturday, June 8, at our Meet Abraham Lincoln event. We sat down with Wright in advance of his appearance to ask him some questions about how he prepares to take on this role of a lifetime
DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM): First things, first: How did you become a Living Historian?
HW: I began portraying Abraham Lincoln in 2005, with my first presentation to the 8th grade class in my school. It was so well-received that many faculty and staff asked me to do it for them after school that Friday! Once I received positive comments, I decided that I wanted to learn more and present Mr. Lincoln in an ever-increasingly true way.
DCHM: What can families look forward to you doing at our program?
HW: I portray Abraham Lincoln during the time of his presidency, from 1861 to 1865. Families can look forward to seeing me wearing a copy of the president’s correct period clothing, including a beaver-fur stove-pipe hat. I stand within an inch of his 6′ 4″ frame, and speak in a version of Lincoln’s high-pitched Kentucky-accented voice. Lincoln was a friendly, funny, and humble man, and I often have only a minute or two to establish his “presence” with people I greet. Families can prepare for interacting with me by reading up on Lincoln’s background or some basic information about the American Civil War. And if they do, they should come to the museum with great questions for me!
DCHM: How do you keep history alive for yourself?
HW: By constantly reading up on him, I’m better able to analyze and critique how I portray him. I’m always aiming to depict him as accurately as possible, and I’m always on the hunt to add new anecdotes, jokes, and stories told by Mr. Lincoln in order to add them to my first-person presentations.
DCHM: What does “Living History” mean to you?
HW: Living History gives the audience a sense of what it could have been like to have been in the presence of the historical person. The Living Historian must create the illusion in a number of ways: dressing in period attire, adopting the person’s speaking characteristics or dialect, being able to relay aspects of the life through factual information, stories, jokes, etc., and above all, play the part in as complete a way as to be believable.
DCHM: How did you learn about the people you portray? Do you have any tips for young “history detectives?”
HW: I learned early on to consult only verified and accurate sources. Most quality sources are in books and not found online. There is a lot of false information about Lincoln online, and there are a number of stories and jokes attributed to him that are not true. Having said that, the only online source that I constantly refer to is the Roy P. Basler’s seven volume set titled The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, sponsored by the University of Michigan, which can be found here. My only tip to history detectives is to always be in search of the truth. Beware of phonies. The library is your friend. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Good news, from a reliable source, is always welcomed.”
Written by J.M. Wasko, former coordinator of Living History programs