By Michael F. Bishop
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Upon observing the popularity of books about the Civil War president, physicians and animals, publisher Bennett Cerf once declared that the most commercially viable title would be "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog."
But when it comes to the bestseller lists, doctors and dogs have taken up far more room than has Abraham Lincoln. His status as the most written about American remains secure, but as even a cursory review of such lists will demonstrate, remarkably few Lincoln books achieve any degree of commercial success. A book does not have to be a bestseller to be worthwhile, but as the bicentennial of the 16th president's birth approaches, and the ever-constant stream of Lincoln books turns into a torrent, one wonders whether the reading public will be enlightened or merely overwhelmed. The three new books under review are drops in this torrent, and add only modestly to our understanding of Lincoln.ONE MAN GREAT ENOUGH Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War, By John C. Waugh | Harcourt. 479 pp. $28
Of the three, John C. Waugh's One Man Great Enough is the least original but most enjoyable. A swift-paced narrative of Lincoln's pre-presidential life, the book is a competent introduction to what George Will once called "the world's noblest political career." Waugh tells a thoroughly familiar story in a breezy, colloquial style.
Waugh relies heavily on the oral testimony collected by William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and biographer, for his depiction of Lincoln's early life, and quotes from it extensively -- indeed, too extensively. This habit of extensive quotation is more effective later in the book, when the author reproduces lengthy passages from Lincoln's speeches and letters. The force of Lincoln's logic and the beauty of his writing elevate Waugh's by-the-numbers approach.
One Man Great Enough describes Lincoln's dangerous 1861 journey to Washington in some detail, demonstrating how the multiple assassination plots against the president-elect made his safe arrival in the capital less than a foregone conclusion. The book touchingly concludes with a tribute to Stephen A. Douglas, the "Little Giant" of Illinois politics and Lincoln's lifelong rival, who after being defeated for the presidency risked his life and broke his health in an effort to prevent disunion.
Waugh's analysis is mostly unexceptionable, though his assertion that Lincoln went into politics "to fill up his down time" trivializes beyond belief the vaulting ambition that drove the future president. Some of the author's expressions are overly obscure: A restless Thomas Lincoln (the future president's father) is said to have "sand in his shoes," and twice we are told that something is "fire new." A brief account of Lincoln's family life unaccountably fails to mention Robert, the eldest of his four sons. Congressman Lincoln lived in the boarding house of a Mrs. Spriggs, not a Mrs. Spears. But such lapses are generally minor.THE CASE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN A Story of Adultery, Murder, and the Making of a Great President By Julie M. Fenster | Palgrave Macmillan. 255 pp. $24.95
Unmentioned in Waugh's treatment, or indeed in most Lincoln biographies, is the central incident in Julie Fenster's meandering and unsatisfying The Case of Abraham Lincoln. Written in the mistaken belief that anything even remotely involving Lincoln is interesting, the book relates Lincoln's role in a murder case. The victim was George Anderson, a Springfield blacksmith, who in 1856, after a protracted illness caused by strychnine poisoning, was killed by a blow to the head. Fenster's narrative alternates between the tangled circumstances surrounding the murder and the temporarily moribund political career of Abraham Lincoln. After a successful career as a state legislator, Lincoln was elected to a single, undistinguished term in Congress and returned to Springfield in 1849. His political career seemed at an end, and he began to focus on his neglected law practice. But perhaps for dramatic purposes, Fenster exaggerates the extent of Lincoln's withdrawal from politics: By the time of Anderson's murder, Lincoln had already emerged from temporary obscurity as perhaps the most eloquent critic of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and lost a close Senate race in 1855. It is true that Lincoln brooded about his "flat failure," but such feelings must be put in the context of his titanic ambitions. Even at that stage he had achieved far more than most of his Illinois contemporaries.
While Lincoln concentrated on his law practice and became involved with the nascent Republican party, his adopted hometown was transfixed by the murder of the local blacksmith. Fenster's plodding account of the murder and subsequent trial is tough sledding for the reader, and only slightly enlivened by Lincoln's eventual participation in the defense of Anderson's wife and nephew. An extensive discussion of land speculation and commercial relations in Springfield further slows the narrative. Fenster capably presents the story of Lincoln's political evolution, but this is well-traveled ground, and the author never quite connects it with the murder mystery at the heart of the book. Lincoln's legal practice was an essential component of his intellectual and professional development, but too much attention to the details obscures rather than enlightens.HOUSE OF ABRAHAM Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War By Stephen Berry | Houghton Mifflin. 255 pp. $28
Of greater importance to Lincoln's life was his relationship with his wife, the former Mary Todd of Lexington, Ky. The marriage of Lincoln and Mary has long been a matter of heated debate among Lincoln historians, but what cannot be disputed is that Mary's large and resolutely Southern family made even the White House itself a place of sectional conflict. If you think you have trouble with your in-laws, Stephen Berry's House of Abraham will put your problems in perspective.
Mary was the fourth of seven children born to her parents; after her mother's death, her father remarried and fathered nine more. Mary was bound to this formidable brood by a combination of affection and resentment; she was close to her siblings but felt neglected as her father concentrated on his new family. This tangle of emotions became overwhelming upon her husband's elevation to the presidency. Since most of her siblings either fought for or vocally supported the Confederacy, she presided as First Lady of a nation that her own family had largely abandoned. This did not prevent one of her sisters from living in the White House, to the dismay of the administration's allies and opponents alike.
The story of the Todd family is even darker and more tragic than that of the Lincolns: estrangement, suffering and death are unleavened by political triumph. But House of Abraham is a compelling chronicle of a unique American family, and sheds new light on the domestic pressures endured by the Civil War president. It is said that no man is a hero to his valet, but John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary and a man almost always at the president's side, wrote a year after the assassination that his martyred chief was "the greatest character since Christ." Any man, let alone a politician, to whom such a tribute could be unironically rendered is deserving of extensive study. Yet we may have passed the point of diminishing returns, with the sheer bulk of Lincoln scholarship having a deadening effect on the public's interest in this heroic figure.
The great irony of the Lincoln publishing phenomenon is that more and more books seem to be chasing fewer and fewer readers. The solution is not a moratorium on Lincoln books, but a policy of greater restraint on the part of publishers. Not every story of Lincoln needs to be put between covers. But a few substantial and important works are set to appear as the bicentennial approaches, and both their authors and the reading public would benefit from less crowded bookstore shelves. *
Michael F. Bishop works at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; from 2002-06, he was executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.