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A roundup of Lincoln biographies

  • Article by: ALLEN BARRA
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 10, 2009 - 9:31 AM
The 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth on Thursday is being marked with an outpouring of books -- picture books, biographies, essays, books obscure and mainstream and scholarly. Here is a sampling of some of the best:

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

by James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press, 96 pages, $12.95)

At just 96 pages, this probably qualifies more as an essay than a biography, but if you consider it as the first book you read on Abraham Lincoln, it's a bargain. McPherson, our greatest living Civil War historian, has written a clear-headed narrative that leads you through the major facts of Lincoln's life and brilliant assessments of the major challenges he faced and overcame in his four years. A superb bibliography recaps the history of Lincoln literature.

McPherson's summaries of Lincoln's accomplishments as well as his deficiencies are lucid and balanced. On Lincoln's record on individual rights during the Civil War, for instance, "One thing can be said with certainty: compared with the enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, Lincoln's curtailment of civil liberties during the far greater internal crisis ... seems to have been quite mild."

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

by George McGovern (Times Books/Henry Holt, 192 pages, $22)

Lincoln is one of the few presidents to be claimed by both liberals and conservatives. This volume by the former Democratic presidential candidate (in the American President Series from Times Books, edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz) examines Lincoln's record from a liberal point of view, particularly his early and apparent contradictory views on slavery -- his platform made clear that his purpose was to contain slavery in the Southern states, not to abolish it. An example: In our 16th president, writes McGovern, "We see the decency of popular government. Its role, then as now, was, as Lincoln wrote 'to elevate the condition of men ... to afford all an unfettered start in the race of life.' ... To him democracy was an experiment that the world had not seen before."

Simply put, McGovern makes a convincing case that America's first Republican president was really our first Democratic president.

LINCOLN: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A WRITER

by Fred Kaplan (HarperCollins, 406 pages, $27.95)

Kaplan, author of superb literary biographies of Mark Twain and Henry James as well as "The Imagination of Genius, Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle," examines Lincoln as a wordsmith and as both a creator and shaper of prose literature. In the Gettysburg address, "Lincoln encapsulated a lifetime of experience and the dynamic interconnection between life and death. ... It affirms that the poetry of loss is, by virtue of its poetic essence, also the poetry that makes sense out of life."

"Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer" is essential reading for any Lincoln student preparing to dip into the rich field of Lincoln's writings, from volumes of letters and speeches as well as legal briefs. He was, in Kaplan's words, "the Twain of our politics. Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience for posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness." Added bonus: a bibliography detailing critical works on Lincoln's writings.

THE LINCOLN ANTHOLOGY: GREAT WRITERS ON HIS LIFE AND LEGACY FROM 1860 TO NOW

edited by Harold Holzer (The Library of America, 1,008 pages, $40)

An intellectual feast for Lincoln devotees: essays, editorials, poems and entries from journals and notebooks, even passages from fiction, from 1860 to today. A partial list: Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken and Garry Wills, among Americans, and Tolstoy, H.G. Wells, Churchill and Marx among the Europeans. (The latter wrote, in a public letter to Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, that even those who hated Lincoln "have now at last found out that he was a man, neither to be browbeaten by adversity, nor intoxicated by success, inflexibly pressing on to this great goal. ... ")

The final entry is from Barack Obama, who, when declaring his candidacy for president in Springfield, Ill., told his constituency that he wanted to take up Lincoln's "unfinished business of perfecting our union and building a better America."

THE BEST AMERICAN HISTORY ESSAYS ON LINCOLN

edited by Sean Wilentz (Palgrave Macmillan, 252 pages, $16.95)

Princeton professor Sean Wilentz has selected the best essays on Lincoln from World War II to the present, offering "to the wide reading public what might be called the historical Lincoln -- including the work of scholars and critics who have devoted their lives to learning, writing, and teaching about Lincoln and his times."

The selection is an interesting cross between the respectful and the skeptical, ranging from historians such as Richard Hofstadter to biographers like David Herbert Donald, whose essay "A Strange, Friendless, Uneducated, Penniless Boy" examines the curious lack of close friendships in Lincoln's life.

The essays are grouped in four sections covering broad themes in Lincoln's life: "General Appraisals," "The Private Lincoln," "Lincoln the Politician," and "Lincoln, the Presidency, and the Civil War." All are presented, writes Wilentz, "with the happy assurance that it does not represent anything close to the last word."

Allen Barra is a contributing editor for American Heritage magazine. His next book, "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee," is due in March from W.W. Norton.

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