From “Abraham Lincoln For Kids” to “Team of Rivals,” from Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln” to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” an estimated 15,000 books have been published about America’s 16th president — reportedly second to Jesus, who in fairness had a 2,000-year head start. And with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death next month, a new rush of books on the Great Emancipator is here to make sure we mark the moment.
But not all these books are created equal. Looking at some of the topics, though, I wonder if we’re getting to the point where there isn’t much left to say about the guy.
I know, that’s anathema to historians; of course there are always new stories to be told, new scholarship to be rendered and fresh evidence to present (See Jefferson, Thomas). But, we’re getting close to mining every last piece of poor ol’ Abe for a book. There’s a slim volume coming in April about Lincoln and his dog (“Abe and Fido: Lincoln’s Love of Animals and the Touching Story of his Favorite Canine Companion”). In his acknowledgments, author Matthew Algeo apologizes for “any lapses in rigorous historiography contained herein.” Couldn’t a magazine piece have sufficed? There is also a new book devoted to Lincoln’s last speech (you can’t miss it, it’s called “Lincoln’s Last Speech”) and one on “Lincoln’s Greatest Case,” about his defense of railroad interests against the steamboat industry in 1856. There is another one about Lincoln’s killer, which I guess makes sense — oh, wait, no, it’s about Lincoln’s killer’s killer, about Boston Corbett, the Union soldier who fatally shot John Wilkes Booth.
There is even a 400-plus-page, meticulously researched inquiry titled “Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History,” by Richard Wightman Fox. Lincoln’s body — think about that one.
I asked prolific Lincoln historian Harold Holzer, who also served as co-chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, if we were starting to hit diminishing returns with all these Lincoln books. “There is a danger of scraping the bottom of the barrel,” Holzer admitted. “And I won’t say who I think is reaching that level.” However, “there is still great work being done,” Holzer emphasized. This particular president continues to appeal to authors and to readers, he explained, because “the major characteristic of Lincoln is that he is elusive.”
No surprise, Holzer, whose many Lincoln books include 2014’s “Lincoln and the Power of the Press,” has two entries for Lincoln anniversary season: “Exploring Lincoln: Great Historians Reappraise Our Greatest President,” which he co-edited, and “President Lincoln Assassinated!!” The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning.”
To be fair, Lincoln has had plenty of news pegs lately. After the 2009 bicentennial of his birth produced a glut of books, the Civil War retrospectives kept the momentum going, all the way to coming 150th anniversary of the president’s assassination. So, might we get a half-century break now?
“There will be some other way in,” Holzer predicted. “I’ve learned not to say it’s over.”
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