In David Herbert Donald’s view, Lincoln was a dogged and wily man, with a sense of humor and shrewdness not equaled by any of his contemporaries. He had less than a year of formal schooling, but a kind stepmother (his mother died when he was quite young) and a tolerant, if not always sensitive, father allowed him the time to read. Drawn to poetry, drama, and the law, Lincoln carefully memorized speeches until they became his own. The cadences of Lincoln’s prose are so compelling because they grow out of his saturation in the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible.
Lincoln’s prospects for national office seemed dim. He had served a few terms as a state legislator and congressman and failed twice to be elected an Illinois senator. He did not look the part of a great man—not having a proper fitting suit until he was elected president. Many people thought him ugly and ungainly. He had a high-pitched speaking voice that settled into a comfortable lower register only after he had warmed up.
How, then, did Lincoln triumph? He was indefatigable—always available to campaign for his party. Like any politician, he had enemies, but surely no American politician since Lincoln has been better at placating foes and making friends. He spoke to the public with a lack of pretention that had enormous appeal.
Lincoln saw himself more as an instrument of fate than as an actor. He was responding to history as much as he was making it, and he could only hope that he was seeing clearly. How tragic and ironic, then, that Lincoln should be murdered by an actor, a man suffused with the belief that the Shakespearean roles he played had made him into a hero for his section, the South. Donald brilliantly renders the assassination scene, which closes his biography, with a spare sketch of John Wilkes Booth’s life, a self-regarding hero.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXVI, November, 1995, p. 134.
Boston Globe. October 8, 1995, p. B35.
The Christian Science Monitor. December 6, 1995, p. A15.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 22, 1995, p. 3.
The Nation. CCLXI, November 20, 1995, p. 622.
The New York Times Book Review. C, October 22, 1995, p. 11.
The New Yorker. LXXI, October 30, 1995, p. 104.
The Wall Street Journal. October 17, 1995, p. A18.
The Washington Post Book World. October 1, 1995, p. 3.
David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of biographies of Thomas Wolfe and Charles Sumner, has crowned his distinguished career with this deeply learned and elegant biography of Abraham Lincoln. It will have considerable appeal for general readers and scholars alike. While doing justice to the complexity of Lincoln’s life and politics, Donald never allows his narrative to flag. He declares that Lincoln is America’s greatest president, but he allows that greatness to emerge not through extended analysis but through the narrative itself. Scholars will be gratified by the extensive notes at the back of the book, which not only detail Donald’s sources but also pay tribute to the wealth of Lincoln scholarship on which he has relied.
What makes Donald’s narrative gripping is his decision to remain within Lincoln’s point of view, so that events unfold, as nearly as possible, through Lincoln’s consciousness. Donald is fortunate to have a subject who wrote simply and beautifully and whose words were often recorded. The best passages of the biography are a skillful blending of judicious quotation and paraphrase of what Lincoln said and wrote.
In Donald’s view, Lincoln was a dogged and wily man, with a sense of humor and shrewdness not equaled by any of his contemporaries. Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling, but he was blessed with a kind stepmother (his mother died when he was quite young) and a tolerant if not always sensitive father, who allowed him the time to read. Lincoln disliked physical labor. He did split rails, but he was hardly the heroic rail-splitter of his campaign propaganda. Indeed, he was a...
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