Steven Spielberg wanted Catherine Clinton to tell him everything she knew. In 2006, the director had already purchased the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s upcoming book, A Team of Rivals, which told the story of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet.
Spielberg filled a hotel suite in California with a team of scholars. Catherine Clinton, who opens Week Three’s “America, 1863” morning lectures at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, was one of those scholars.
The team spent a weekend being interrogated by Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and producer Kathleen Kennedy. Clinton, a professor of U.S. history at Queens University Belfast, brought a rare bit of scholarship to the group; she was working on a book about the life of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
“There are at least half-a-dozen important books that come out every year on Lincoln,” Clinton said, “whereas the last book about Mrs. Lincoln came out in 1980. I thought it was time for an update.”
Clinton’s book Mrs. Lincoln: A Life came out in 2010.
The following summer, she flew to Richmond, Va., where Spielberg’s epic biopic, “Lincoln,” was being filmed. She had dinner with Sally Field, who received an Oscar nomination for her role as Mary Lincoln.
“It’s great to talk to someone who’s thought as much about your subject as you have,” Clinton said. “I felt I was able to help cheer [Field] on. I admired her ability to put dignity into a woman left behind by the war.”
In her morning lecture, Clinton seeks to highlight the emotional impact of the Civil War. She will touch on Lincoln’s family and analyze the White House as a house divided.
Clinton said she wants to talk about the people who either didn’t or couldn’t go to the battlefronts and how they coped.
“The first question I always get asked when I give a lecture on my book is, was [Mary Lincoln] crazy?” Clinton said, “If we brought her out today and examined her, could we determine her mental state? If you think about the fact that she lost her son Willie and watched her husband get shot right next to her, she’s someone who really suffered at the hands of history.”
Clinton most enjoys the Q-and-A portion of her lectures. She plans to spend a large portion of her time on the Amp stage responding to questions and looks forward to speaking at a screening of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” later this week.
Sherra Babcock, Institution vice president and the Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, helped organize a special screening of “Lincoln” at Chautauqua Cinema. The cinema plans to show the film three times throughout the week. At the 5 p.m. Thursday showing, Clinton will give a brief introduction about her role as a historical consultant and will hold a Q-and-A at the end of the film.
“We sometimes do ‘meet-the-filmmaker’ collaborations with the cinema,” Babcock said, “but working with a film consultant will be a new conversation for us.”
Clinton spoke about the lessons to be learned from the Civil War.
“[The war] is not dead and past,” she said. “It’s a really great template to look at questions of gender and race.”