“A. Lincoln: A Biography” is Ronald White, Jr.‘s 2009 biography of Abraham Lincoln. White is the author of seven other books including two previous books on Lincoln. He is a graduate of UCLA and Princeton Theological Seminary and is a Visiting Professor of History at UCLA. He is currently working on a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, to be published in early 2015.
There is certainly no shortage of biographies of Abraham Lincoln. So it is high praise that White’s effort is often described as the best single-volume Lincoln biography since David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” was published in 1995. Consistent with my expectations, this book provided a broad, clear and penetrating review of our sixteenth president.
Although this is a lengthy biography (with nearly 700 pages of text and almost 100 pages of notes) it is lucid, free flowing and extremely easy to read. White manages to pack his pages with a significant amount of detail but without losing the big picture or slowing the book’s pace. Numerous maps, charts, illustrations and photographs are embedded throughout the text, and they appear when contextually appropriate rather than being bunched together arbitrarily as is the case with many books.
White’s synthesis of Lincoln’s complex life is well calibrated and his frequent review of Lincoln’s most notable letters and speeches is interesting and insightful. Equally valuable is the way this book traces Lincoln’s public and private views toward slavery from his childhood through his presidency. Coverage of the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858 proves absolutely superb. But most commendable may be the way White’s biography demonstrates Lincoln’s lifetime of enormous intellectual and emotional growth and maturity.
Exceptional in many ways, this biography is not perfect. The first half of the book is less interesting than I would have liked and provides less insight into Lincoln’s ancestry and childhood than another (multi-volume) biography of Lincoln I recently completed. Also, White focuses principally, though not exclusively, on Lincoln’s legal and political careers so the spotlight rarely shines on his family.
In what space is devoted to her, White is too generous in his treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln who, by most accounts, was fiendishly difficult. One of Lincoln’s law partners described his marriage as “a burning, scorching hell” and the First Lady was sometimes referred to as “her Satanic majesty.” Yet none of this color infuses White’s biography. To my greater disappointment, the book ends rather abruptly after Lincoln’s death, with little reflection on his legacy.
Overall, this is an extremely readable biography which provides much more than just a satisfactory introduction to Lincoln. White’s biography displays a marvelous balance of breadth vs. depth of coverage and is accentuated by moments of excellence. It is suitable for someone with little familiarity with Lincoln as well as a scholar seeking new perspectives on a fascinating president. Despite falling slightly short of my lofty expectations, Ronald White’s “A. Lincoln” is educational, enjoyable and well worthwhile.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars