Published in 1995, David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” is often considered the quintessential Lincoln biography. Donald, the grandson of a Union cavalry officer, was a long-time history professor at Harvard. He also wrote nearly three-dozen books and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (for his biographies of Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe). Best remembered as a leading authority on Abraham Lincoln, Donald died in 2009.
Donald’s “Lincoln” is widely regarded as the best single-volume biography ever written on Abraham Lincoln. With several other renowned biographies of Lincoln still to read I am unable to validate that premise. But fresh off two recently published Lincoln biographies and five-dozen biographies of earlier presidents, I can confirm that this biography – while not quite as “unrivaled” as promised by some – is nevertheless extremely meritorious.
Obvious from its earliest pages is that Donald’s biography is scholarly, serious and straightforward. Although it fully presents Lincoln’s dramatic life story, from poverty to the Presidency, this book does not idolize or worship Lincoln as might be the temptation. In fact, many have criticized Donald for emphasizing Lincoln’s “essential passivity” rather than positioning him as a determined, forceful president aggressively pushing the country to embrace his enlightened moral standards. Donald also seems to place less focus than other biographers on Lincoln’s dramatic growth and maturation as president, though this component of his character is not completely hidden.
One of the many excellent aspects of this book is Donald’s description of the personalities of, and interplay between, the members of Lincoln’s cabinet. The acumen that accompanies these discussions is particularly interesting and insightful. Also useful is the author’s explanation for Lincoln’s desire (and success) in seeking a seat in the Illinois state legislature in 1834. Equally compelling is discussion of the Republican nominating convention of 1860 and Lincoln’s early hunt for the presidency.
Less successful is Donald’s style of writing. Based largely on superlatives from delighted previous readers, I expected a smoothly-flowing, consistently engaging narrative in the style of McCullough or Chernow. However, “Lincoln” does not provide that type of experience. The style and pace of the biography are a bit too uneven and the biography resembles the work of a great historian rather than of a great author. This story is heavy on facts and insight but is relatively light on the nuances that would serve to place the reader “in the room” with Lincoln.
Donald’s biography generally proceeds chronologically, as would be expected. But within many of its chapters the story switches without warning between chronological and topical progression. Because the author assumes the reader will manage these transitions without assistance, extra attention is required to avoid any confusion as to the sequencing of the events described.
Lincoln and his wife are also less vividly humanized than I would have liked. Whether this is in an attempt to avoid sensationalizing them (or their relationship) on the basis of imperfect historical information I do not know. But compared to the far more expressive treatment the Lincolns received in Michael Burlingame’s recent two-volume study of Lincoln, Donald’s description of the Lincolns often seems relatively bland – and certainly less dramatic.
Overall, David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” is an excellent biography though it did not quite live up to my high expectations. Instead of a consistently engaging but scholarly study of Lincoln, I encountered a biography designed primarily to inform rather than entertain. Someone expecting a scholarly but entertaining and carefree waltz through Lincoln’s life will be disappointed. But someone seeking serious (but not stodgy) Lincoln scholarship in a single volume will find David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” a solid, perhaps great, choice.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars