It is important in young adult biography to present a well-rounded view of the subject, with both positive and negative traits being limned. Horgan portrays Lincoln, on the whole, as a popular, competent individual with a tremendous desire to better his position in the world and a great talent for using the English language. On the other hand, Lincoln’s uncertainties, his struggle with depression after the death of Anne Rutledge, his lack of a skilled trade or profession, the failure of his venture into business, and his periods of unemployment are all less positive aspects of his New Salem years that are included in this work. In portraying Lincoln’s strengths while showing his weaknesses, Horgan has avoided the excessive adulation traditionally prevalent in biographies for young readers.
Changing views regarding the American frontier have been important in biographies of Lincoln. His early biographers—such as William Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield law partner—tended to see the frontier either as being of no influence or as having a very negative influence on Lincoln. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, however, because of the writings of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, these frontier surroundings came to be seen as an energizing and constructive force in Lincoln’s early life. Citizen of New Salem is valuable as a reinforcement of this view because it provides impressions of, and insights into, frontier life during the crucial years in Lincoln’s life, years when he was making...
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Identifying with the subject of a biography may be one of the greatest values of the genre for the young reader. When he was in his twenties and a citizen of New Salem, Lincoln showed evidence of his future greatness, but he was also unsure of himself and very uncertain about the direction that his life should take. Many young readers can identify with such characteristics and feelings, and perhaps they will also be able to relate to the positive steps that Lincoln took. Citizen of New Salem does give a romanticized view of an American hero in his youth, but it nevertheless provides enough insights into its subject’s humanity to fulfill this important attribute of a good juvenile biography. The book is a beautifully crafted piece of lyrical prose that gives a valuable perspective on these developmental years in Lincoln’s life to the appreciative and capable young reader.
Because this is a partial biography, it is best used as a supplemental work on Lincoln and his New Salem years. Also, the fact that Lincoln is never formally identified in the book—called instead “the flatboatman,” “the store clerk,” or “the candidate,”—necessitates some prior knowledge of his life. Therefore, although it cannot substitute for a complete biography or for more in-depth accounts of these formative years, Citizen of New Salem can serve to illuminate this part of Lincoln’s life, as well as life on the American frontier in general.