Abe the Intellectual

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Reviewed by David W. Blight
Sunday, February 8, 2009


A Biography

By Ronald C. White Jr.

Random House. 796 pp. $35

The famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass once declared: "It is impossible for . . . anybody . . . to say anything new about Abraham Lincoln." And that was in 1893! More than 100 years later, as we contemplate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth on Feb. 12, an avalanche of new books about the 16th president descends upon an eager reading audience. Why? Ronald C. White Jr., an astute scholar of Lincoln's religion and language, has an apt answer: Lincoln continues to fascinate us "because he eludes simple definitions and final judgments."

In A. Lincoln -- the title is taken from the way Lincoln signed his name -- White does not portray a genius who seemed to figure out all things before other mortals. Rather, this is a Lincoln of self-doubt, an evolving personality and an emerging and curious mind. This is a Lincoln of growth from backwoods ignorance to Enlightenment thinker, from prejudice and caution to boldness and imagination. This is a Lincoln, White writes, on a "journey of self-discovery" to the very end of his life. As Douglass poignantly said, Lincoln "began by playing Pharaoh [but] ended by playing Moses." Now that is a story.

White, a visiting professor at UCLA, has written two previous books on Lincoln's rhetoric. The signature feature of this full biography is White's treatment of Lincoln as reader, writer and orator, a terrain where new insights are still available. Abraham Lincoln loved books, an old trope in the Lincoln myth, but it is so very true. Among my favorite images in this work is that of Lincoln, the young congressman in 1847 in Washington, D.C. He did not drink, chew tobacco or gamble away hours at his boarding house across the street from the Capitol. Instead, he was observed walking out of the Library of Congress, carrying books wrapped in a scarf tied on a pole over his shoulder. His colleagues accused him of incessantly "mousing" around in the stacks.

And this is White's core argument: Lincoln didn't just enjoy books, he craved them -- from Blackstone's Commentaries to Shakespeare, from many kinds of history to regular reading of the Bible (often aloud), political philosophy and the poetry of Robert Burns. The boy who first started reading in Sinking Creek, Ky., when he was 5 and then yearned to escape his father's Indiana farm as a teenager later said that in his youth "there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education." White makes this "interior world of intellectual curiosity" the central theme of Lincoln's life. Given all the discussion of the legacy of the outgoing George W. Bush (not a curious reader) and the ambitions of the incoming Barack Obama (a well-read man), White's observation that it was in reading that Lincoln could "clarify" his evolving "ethical identity" is worth our contemplation.

The book's other signature is White's treatment of Lincoln's use of private notes, often mere "scraps of paper" on which he constantly tried out ideas and phrasing, especially when preparing for a major speech. In these accumulated notes (sometimes whole pages of prose), White concludes, Lincoln kept his own kind of "journal." And these musings were never so important as when he wrote orations such as his "House Divided" or "Cooper Union" speeches, or the transcendent Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural (which White beautifully illuminates). White sees the origins of many famous speeches in earlier jottings, a window into how Lincoln "thinks his way into a problem."

Moreover, White stresses the importance of Lincoln's public letters while president. A master ironist, Lincoln embodied paradox and ambiguity as a politician, and he was both fascinated with and knew the importance of public opinion. He also, usually, managed to sustain a moral clarity in the face of withering criticism and pressure. From a letter to Horace Greeley about "saving the Union" in 1862, to his letters to Erastus Corning about habeas corpus and to James Conkling about the emancipation policy in 1863, his missives were read by millions when published in major newspapers. In these unprecedented public letters, Lincoln made his case to the nation and even to the Confederacy, often through subtlety and lasting metaphors.

White provides the full story down to the assassination. He examines Lincoln's private life, including his early insecurities with women, his troubled marriage to Mary Todd and the devastating deaths of their two young sons. Mary makes many appearances but is too often described as "pretty" and "perky." The presidency and the war, on the other hand, emerge with order and clarity. The detail sometimes is numbing (hotel room numbers, addresses, names of generals' horses) and sometimes exhilarating, as in the thorough coverage of Lincoln's debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 or the dramatic balloting at the 1860 Republican convention that nominated Lincoln.

White writes engaging narrative, occasionally at the expense of analysis. Sometimes, he simply lets Lincoln's words speak for themselves and sidesteps explanation. Why did Lincoln idolize Henry Clay or support colonization of blacks to foreign lands for so long? Why did he not fire Maj. Gen. George McClellan sooner, after McClellan's many battlefield failures? We are never told. White takes note of Lincoln's problem with "sadness" but does not take up historian Joshua Wolf Shenk's call to look deeper into the president's depression. And White movingly describes the final drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, but he falls flat when discussing Lincoln's meeting with five black leaders in August 1862, at which he told them that the races must remain "separate," that they should emigrate from the United States and that their presence in the country had caused the war.

How daunting it must be for any biographer to take on Lincoln's life in this crowded literary marketplace! But this thoroughly researched book belongs on the A-list of major biographies of the tall Illinoisan; it's a worthy companion for all who admire Lincoln's prose and his ability to see into, and explain, America's greatest crisis. ยท

David W. Blight teaches at Yale University. He is the author of "A Slave No More" and, most recently, of an essay on "The Theft of Lincoln" in "Our Lincoln."

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