Decades ago a friend gave me a book on some aspect of the life of Abraham Lincoln. I remember it only because of what the author said in the introduction.
The author allowed that yes, there had been so many books written on the life of Lincoln to that point, and now, finally, there was only one book left: the one that he was writing.
That author was wrong on many levels. New discoveries are being made about the 16th president on a regular basis, and new aspects of his life are being examined. In addition, each generation has to re-examine Lincoln with its own lights and using its own focus.
Those thoughts returned to me over the past couple of weeks as I have read reviews of two more books about the life of Lincoln. One, The Zealot and the Emancipator, by H.D. Brands compares the approaches that John Brown and Lincoln had to slavery. In the New York Times review of this book, Sean Wilentz writes:
In calling Lincoln “the emancipator,” Brands takes exception to a view of Lincoln, now in vogue in some quarters, as a reluctant freedom fighter, a moderate politician who was devoted only to preserving the Union until the vagaries of the Civil War forced his hand. In fact, Lincoln’s hatred of slavery, established early in his life, ran deep: Brands quotes one Illinois abolitionist who got to know him in the 1840s and found “his view and mine on the wrong of slavery … in perfect accord.” As a working politician, Lincoln heeded practical limits, but he did not conceal his antislavery convictions. . . . Source: Book Review: ‘The Zealot and the Emancipator,’ by H.W. Brands – The New York Times
David Reynolds has written a broader and more ambitious book (and much longer) about Lincoln. His Abe: Abraham Lincoln and His Times is a “cultural biography” that examines the influence of mid-19th century America had on this budding icon of American history. New York Times reviewer Robert Merry has this to say about the book:
More character study than narrative biography, this Lincoln portrait, fully 932 pages of text, goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man: his tastes, likes, dislikes, the quality of his thinking, the evolution of his ideas — all shaped and molded by the society around him. At the same time, Reynolds succumbs to a pitfall in drawing conclusions about how particular Lincoln experiences influenced his later thoughts and actions when no evidence for such causal effects is discernible. Source: Searching for the Real Abraham Lincoln – The New York Times
Merry’s review notes that to date there are about 16,000 books about Abraham Lincoln. Undoubtedly, there will be many more to come. Lincoln’s life is certainly worth all of the attention that we give to him.
And as many books as there are about Lincoln, there are probably more caricatures. From the artist’s point of view, Lincoln has an exceptional face: a long, protruding lower lip, sunken cheekbones, deeply sunken eyes, the beard, plenty of unkempt hair — the list could go on. The illustration here is out of my sketchbook where one night I tried to emphasize his ears.
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