Citizen of New Salem Critical Context - Essay

Paul Horgan

Critical Context

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.