Honor’s Voice (Magill Book Reviews)
As Abraham Lincoln is by far the most written about president in American history, there hardly seems room for yet another book about his life. Professor Douglas L. Wilson’s HONOR’S VOICE: THE TRANSFORMATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, however, sheds new light on a relatively unknown period when Lincoln made the remarkable transformation from backwoods surveyor and country lawyer to national figure.
Working largely from interviews and letters compiled by Lincoln’s law partner and lifelong friend William Herndon, Wilson carefully reconstructs the important events in his life between 1831 and 1842, from the time he left home to his marriage to Mary Todd. Early jobs as a storekeeper, postmaster, surveyor, and self- taught lawyer honed his political skills, his legendary encounter with local tough Jack Armstrong gave him confidence and self assurance, and forays into local politics set the stage for his rise to national prominence.
Wilson also shows us another side of Lincoln, often brooding and melancholy, and at times not as “honest” as legend so often portrays him. He was especially uncomfortable with women—as a suitor he was nervous and awkward. Also fascinating is Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd. It was far from being a classic love affair, and Lincoln’s complex and sometimes stormy relationship with her formed a very important part of his later life.
Wilson has given readers an original and revealing portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s formative years. In an area of Lincoln scholarship largely neglected by historians, he has set a high standard of excellence with this well-researched and entertaining book.
Sources for Further Study
America’s Civil War. XI, September, 1998, p. 90.
Booklist. XCIV, January 1, 1998, p. 773.
Library Journal. CXXIII, February 15, 1998, p. 158.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, March 26, 1998, p. 6.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 15, 1998, p. 13.
The New Yorker. LXXIV, June 8, 1998, p. 89.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 22, 1997, p. 48.
The Wall Street Journal. February 12, 1998, p. A20.
Honor’s Voice (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
As Abraham Lincoln is by far the most-written about president in American history, there hardly seems room for yet another book about his life. Douglas Wilson’s Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, however, sheds new light on the relatively unknown period during which Lincoln made the remarkable transformation from backwoods surveyor and country lawyer to a national political figure.
The author reminds readers that the work is not a complete account Lincoln’s life during the eleven years between the time he left home and his marriage to Mary Todd. Wilson has chosen instead to focus upon what he considers to be important themes and episodes of Lincoln’s life that contributed to his success as a politician and a lawyer. Wilson explores Lincoln’s attempts at self-education, his problems with women, and his transition from “country” to “town” as he moved into more sophisticated and cosmopolitan social circles. He is shown working as a storekeeper and mill operator, a skilled surveyor, a competent postmaster, and finally a self-taught country lawyer—vocations that served to enlarge his circle of acquaintances and hone his skills as he endeavored to become a successful local, and eventually national, political figure. Throughout the book, one can see, as the title states, the remarkable transformation of Lincoln’s character during these critical years. Also visible is another side of the man—times when he loses his nerve and self-confidence, when he becomes despondent almost to the point of suicide. In addition, there is a rarely seen private side to Lincoln: his fondness for telling off- color stories, his explorations into sex, and his uncanny ability to “skin” an opponent as a stump speaker or in the newspapers.
Most of the popular traditional historical accounts of this period in Lincoln’s life are plagued by evidence that is either missing, sketchy, or contradictory, making it difficult to reconstruct what really took place. Many are recollections recorded years after his death by those who knew Lincoln personally, long after he became a legendary figure. Historians are always suspicious of such evidence, subject to the fading of memory over time. Because of this, little Lincoln scholarship in the last fifty years has dealt with his early life. By a careful sifting of what he considered to be the most reliable evidence—the letters and interviews collected by Lincoln’s law partner, William H. Herndon—Wilson reexamines this period in Lincoln’s life. Herndon was nine years Lincoln’s senior when the two became law partners in Springfield, Illinois, in 1844. From then until the time that Lincoln went to Washington as president in 1861, Herndon was his trusted confidant and closest friend. After Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon was determined to preserve Lincoln’s place in history, but instead of trying to elevate him to martyred sainthood as did many other biographers, Herndon sought to portray Lincoln as he really was. Part of the problem, however, was that information on Lincoln’s first thirty years of life was exceedingly sparse; even in later years as president, he would give few details of his youth. All Herndon could do was to track down people still living after 1865 who knew Lincoln during his formative years. Herndon’s collection of interviews and recollections remains the only remotely reliable source on this period of Lincoln’s life.
Wilson’s story begins in 1831, when Lincoln was in Decatur, Illinois, with his father. He signed on to build a flatboat and sail a cargo of goods down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Upon his return, he took a job in a general store in New Salem, Illinois.
The portrait that emerges of Lincoln at this stage of his life is one of a young man who is at times quite unsure of himself, who broods about his own death and frequently suffers from terrible bouts of depression, and who yet is determined to find a place for himself in the world, to leave his mark, to prove himself a great man. He was determined to test and prepare himself, both mentally and physically, to make something of his life.
One of the most interesting incidents in this regard was his encounter with Jack Armstrong, supposedly the toughest and strongest man in the area. Like all newcomers, Lincoln was challenged to a fight. Lincoln would not fight Armstrong, but he would wrestle; at least wrestling had rules. The encounter was really a test of strength more than anything else. Many biographers have considered the wrestling match to be a turning point in Lincoln’s life. Wilson does not share this view,...
(The entire section is 1894 words.)