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The Lincoln Canon
There are too many Lincoln books. Which are indispensable?

By Fred Kaplan
Sunday, February 8, 2009

There's a joke in the publishing world. A writer asks his editor for ideas about a commercially promising topic for a book. "Lincoln's doctor's dog," the editor unhesitatingly responds.

I'm not a Lincoln expert, rather a biographer who has had the pleasure of reading much of what has been written about him from his lifetime to this year of his bicentennial. Some advice: Don't try that unless you have at least five years available. And don't believe the blurbs by well-known Lincoln authors about the brilliance of the books they're puffing; the same names keep reappearing in a circle of self-promotion. A recommendation to scholars: Write only one book about Lincoln; give it your best shot and then move on. A recommendation to enthusiasts: Skim a lot. Words about Lincoln fill a small but ever growing library.

Still, Americans have reason to be proud of their Lincoln literary cadre, especially of scholars like Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, who created the most valuable source of information on Lincoln, Herndon's Informants (1997). It's a painstaking compilation of the work of William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, who spent 25 years after the president's death interviewing and corresponding with people who had known Lincoln. But it's not a book for the general reader, and not all of the informants' claims are necessarily to be believed.

Neither are some of the approaches to Lincoln over the past 50 years; they change with the times and with what's ideologically fashionable. Of the Freudian genre, my favorite is George B. Forgie's Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (1979). It may be wrong-headed, but it's quite compelling. So, too, is Harry V. Jaffa's brilliant and ground-breaking Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959), which has a libertarian flavor and is a favorite of conservative think tanks. C. A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2005) is highly provocative, imputing homosexual experience to Lincoln without evidence for the claim. Like many of the ideological books about Lincoln, maybe it should be read -- but in the same way and for the same reasons one would read books that over the years have claimed Lincoln for Christianity without noticing that he did not believe in miracles, immortality or the divinity of Jesus.

I have a handful of books to recommend to the general reader: Allen C. Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President (1999) for bringing to our attention Lincoln's intellectual powers; Gabor S. Boritt's Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (1978) for its emphasis on Lincoln's economic philosophy, which should be of special interest at the present moment; and Garry Wills's exemplary Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (1992), which spawned a genre of books focusing on single speeches and remains the most intellectually exhilarating of them. David Herbert Donald's Lincoln (1995) is still the best one-volume biography. Michael Burlingame's recent, two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008) deserves mention, if only to explain why I highly recommend his earlier book, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994). A Life is a 2,000-page compendium that works on the principle that nothing should be left out or condensed. Burlingame's skills as a biographer and a stylist are modest; he's right on target, though, about how terrible Mary Todd Lincoln was and about Lincoln's keen sexual interest in women. Burlingame dealt with these matters more concisely in the earlier book, which is one of my favorites.

Excessive coverage of the war years (to which Burlingame devotes his entire second volume) is an occupational hazard, propelled by the public's fascination with the Civil War. The most prominent living Civil War historian, James McPherson, has contributed substantially to the war literature. His recent Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2008) recycles in a slim volume material available in his excellent Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), which remains the best book on the subject. Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) is perhaps the most referenced Lincoln book of the last decade. It makes a tenuous case -- there were, in fact, only two serious rivals appointed to the cabinet and only one who remained so -- at too great a length and in hyperbolic prose. Still, it seems a world-wide favorite, a phenomenon worth thinking about. My favorite and most revelatory Lincoln book of recent decades is Douglas L. Wilson's Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998). It's a gem: sensible, economical, solidly based on the evidence, the best account of Lincoln's life up to the end of 1842.

The most revealing analysis I've read about the origins and significance of the war seems to be unknown to historians, perhaps because it's by a political theorist of the quantitative school. The book is Richard Franklin Bensel's Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1857-1877 (1990). I've read it three times, and each time my admiration increases. It deals incisively with issues that are very much alive today, particularly the tension between the states and the federal government, though I doubt that any current member of any branch of our government has read it.

One day, years ago, while bicycling in Forest Park in the crowded borough of Queens in New York City, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a Union encampment being set up from trailers and station wagons, as if for a movie set. That wasn't the case, nor was any real blood being shed. With all due respect to re-enactors, I consider the Civil War too tragic a subject to make a game of. I bicycled on, somewhat unsteady on my wheels and in my emotions, thinking of Matthew Brady's powerful photographs of the war and the president. For the latter, look at Lincoln, An Illustrated Biography (1992), by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. et al., and a sequel (but disregard the text, which is simplistic), Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon (2008). And for the deepest experience of Lincoln, do what our new president does -- read the great man's words, and not just the Gettysburg Address and the two inaugural addresses. For that I recommend the handy, durable, modestly priced, two-volume Library of America edition, Speeches and Writings (1989). Or, if that's a little formidable, then get the one-volume The Portable Abraham Lincoln (1992) from Penguin; it has less, but often -- in life, as in good prose and good storytelling -- less is more. ยท

Fred Kaplan is the author of "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer."

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