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An unlikely American couple: Como and Lincoln.
An unlikely American couple: Como and Lincoln.

Abe Lincoln Meets Perry Como

Field review by the editors.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Civic art often bonds with its audience through subliminal imagery, from the stylized forms of Dynastic Egypt to the regalia-filled royal portraits of Elizabethan England to the iconography of modern power-mad regimes.

So it is with "Return Visit," a 1991 time-warping sculpture by John Seward Johnson II (1930-2020) in downtown Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The painted metal sculpture stands on the sidewalk -- inviting public interaction, a novelty for the early 1990s -- and features "the most true-to-life statue of Abraham Lincoln ever created" (according to its plaque) gesturing with his stovepipe hat toward the second floor window of a house. This was the house where Lincoln finished writing his famous Gettysburg Address.

However, the guy standing next to Abe is not from the 19th century. He is, according to Johnson, "the common man," which was Johnson's way of showing that the Gettysburg Address -- which the man holds in his hand -- was as relevant in 1991 as it was in 1863.

Common he may be, but the man also resembles 1950s pop singer Perry Como (1912-2001), who grew up in western Pennsylvania. Johnson, who was known to slyly tap into the pop culture zeitgeist for his artistic inspiration, likely chose Como as his Gettysburg "common man" because Como was well-known locally and was celebrated in his time as a down-to-earth, sweater-wearing, regular guy.


"Four score and seven years ago...." Perry has a tight grip on Lincoln's famous speech.

The problem with this kind of coding, which probably delighted Gettysburg visitors in 1991, is that the artwork outlasted the audience. Cultural memes age fast and not very well. Queen Elizabeth's 16th century dresses were painted with symbols that we no longer understand, and few people today would recognize Perry Como, even in Pennsylvania.

Abe can't take his eyes off of Perry's sweater.
Abe can't take his eyes off of Perry's sweater.

The Como connection became even more tenuous when Johnson made a 31-foot-tall copy of "Return Visit" and began renting it out to various cities across the Midwest. People who saw the sculpture in Crown Point, Indiana, in 2016 or in Springfield, Illinois, in 2020 didn't know about Perry Como or Gettysburg. They only knew that a giant Lincoln was waving his hat and talking to some giant white guy dressed like a suburban dad from the 1980s.

When Johnson trotted out his vague "common man" explanation, it was met with derisive 21st century snorts about Johnson's disrespect for American diversity.

It's too late now for Johnson, but the company currently overseeing his artworks really should come clean and just admit that the guy is Perry Como. The general public wouldn't be any less confused, but they might focus their statue outrage elsewhere.

And what of poor metal Perry Como, catapulted into the past in Johnson's reckless tango with time? Does he tell Lincoln about Ford's Theatre and radically change the course of history? Does he keep silent and live with horrible guilt for the rest of his life? Or is the premise of "Return Visit" the opposite: that godlike Johnson has temporarily brought Lincoln back from the dead? "I wrote the Gettysburg Address... and please hide me, Perry Como!"

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Also see: Loopiest Lincoln Landmarks

Abe Lincoln Meets Perry Como

Address:
9 Lincoln Square, Gettysburg, PA
Directions:
Southeast corner of the midtown square of Gettysburg, where US-30/York St. and US-15/Baltimore St. meet.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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