One late summer day, when I was 19 and home from college, I picked up the first volume of Carl Sandburg’s sweeping biography of Abraham Lincoln. Day became evening, and, dismissing dinner, I continued to read into the night. Upon discovering it was 2 a.m., I quickly realized that I had finished the first volume, and I then commenced reading the second into the morning hours. I finished all six in a matter of days. Sandburg’s lyrical rendering of Lincoln’s early days, the unvarnished Illinois countryside and the simpler political milieu of the time made for compelling reading.
I, among millions across the globe, remain fascinated by the man. Given the inspiring nature of Lincoln’s character and the continued appeal of the Civil War years, a raft of biographies have been published about Lincoln, his early life and his presidency. Sandburg’s was not the first–and surely not the last–biography published, but it has stood the test of time. DBRL has plenty of great Lincoln biographies in its collection.
Clearly, the most famous recent biography about the Lincoln years is “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Kearn’s biography, published in 2005, was eventually adapted into the extremely popular 2012 movie, “Lincoln.” Focusing on some of the key members in his presidential cabinet, men who initially held Lincoln in low regard, the book continues to find wide readership.
Lincoln famously said, “Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.” Mario Cuomo suggests that perhaps we should apply these kinds of ideals to our current political environment. In his book “Why Lincoln Matters: Today More than Ever,” published in 2004, Cuomo discusses how Lincoln’s political philosophy could be very useful in today’s world, and also examines how destructive much of our political discourse currently is to both the body-politic and the American citizenry.
There are also numerous shorter biographies of Lincoln in the canon, including Thomas Keneally’s “Abraham Lincoln.” Although a little over 170 pages long, this readable book contains a fairly precise character sketch of the man, from birth until death. As Keneally so aptly puts it near the end, through his assassination Lincoln had “become the bloodied nation incarnate.”
I would also recommend an even shorter history of the man (again titled “Abraham Lincoln”), written in 2009 by James M. Mcpherson. Only 65 pages long, this biography is but a thumbnail sketch, and also is appropriate for school-age readers. Speaking of Lincoln’s impact, Mcpherson states, “With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln started the United States on the road to living up to its professed belief that all men are truly created equal.” In closing, Mcpherson writes: “More than any other American, Lincoln’s name has gone into history. He gave all Americans, indeed all people everywhere, reason to remember that he had lived.”
Finally, Fred Kaplan in his book “Lincoln, the Biography of a Writer,” published in 2008, fleshes out Lincoln’s remarkable facility for writing. “For Lincoln, words mattered immensely. His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his high valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language . . .” Kaplan argues that without these great writing skills, as well as the strength of his oratorical skills (for the speeches he worked from were tightly woven works of writing, whose transcripts stand alone in their power), Lincoln’s efficacy as public figure and politician would have been greatly diminished. Indeed, without inspired orations such as the Emancipation Proclamation, the long struggle that was the Civil War may not have ended as quickly, or perhaps not even ended at all.