Abraham Lincoln, biographies, book reviews, Carl Sandburg, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize
“Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” is a two-volume biography of Lincoln’s early life written by Carl Sandburg and published in 1926. Sandburg, like Lincoln, was a son of the Illinois prairie and he harbored a lifelong fascination with the sixteenth president. Although better known as an eminent American poet, Sandburg was also a well-regarded biographer.
Following publication of “The Prairie Years” Sandburg began an exhaustive effort to complete his study of Lincoln. In 1939 he published a four-volume series “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years” covering Lincoln’s presidency. This second installment on Lincoln’s life earned Sandburg the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in history, making him the only person ever to receive Pulitzers in both poetry and history. Sandburg died in 1967 at the age of 89.
Despite lacking access to many of the historical sources available to modern Lincoln biographers, much of Sandburg’s “The Prairie Years” rings familiar to readers acquainted with Lincoln’s life. This two-volume effort totals nearly 1,000 pages of text, but lacks the footnotes and bibliography which would be expected of a more recent historical work. Volume 1 covers Lincoln’s life through the mid-1850s (after his service as an Illinois Congressman). Volume 2 covers the half-decade of his life through his election as president. The series ends with the President-elect’s train departing Illinois for the nation’s capital in early 1861.
“The Prairie Years” is a biography about which I possess conflicting emotions. To its credit, it is a unique look at Lincoln’s early life and is a tale often beautifully told; that its author was a renowned poet is often unsurprising. While reading Sandburg’s account of Lincoln’s earliest years one cannot help but visualize the same raw material Mark Twain must have drawn upon for many of his stories. The first volume, in particular, is almost a reference manual on the uncultured, rugged frontier life.
On the other hand, this biography is an imperfect combination of history, context and fluff. As a contributor to Lincoln scholarship, the series lacks the potency it probably once possessed. As a source of unique cultural and social context, the series is excellent – but it provides virtually no historical context whatsoever. And it is replete with stories of (and by) Lincoln which add individual bursts of color to the portrait. But after an endless barrage of these brief, rapid-fire tales they grow almost pointless – adding filler but little substance.
Happily, Sandburg’s writing style feels far more modern than the biography’s age would suggest; the text is smooth, fluid and easy to read (excepting Sandburg’s propensity for incorporating the local dialect in many passages). Unfortunately, the biography does not follow a consistently logical, linear progression but takes on a form that only a “creative” thinker could perfect.
Along its vaguely chronological path, Sandburg takes frequent detours to explore favorite topics or themes. Although the diversions can be fascinating they are often followed by events non-sequential to those taking place before the diversion. Only later will the reader find the storyline returning to the original point of departure. One moment Lincoln is in a courtroom using humor to sway a jury; the next he is headed to Washington as a congressman…but he never seems to have decided to run for office or to have campaigned. But fear not, that piece of the puzzle will come later.
Missing in the broad coverage of Lincoln’s life are key elements of his success: his intense drive for self-education, his passionate love of politics and his zealous (if evolutionary) views on slavery. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are not particularly well described and someone unfamiliar with American history will not gain a better grasp of the Compromise of 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Sandburg’s biography is at its very best when placing the reader in Lincoln’s place and time, exposing his surroundings, culture and local flavor. While reading these two volumes, it is easy to imagine yourself sitting around a campfire listening to Sandburg (or Lincoln) telling one story after another. It is harder to imagine that you might be listening to a lecture by a noted historian. And the experience is best for readers with no pressing business; this biography is in no hurry to get anywhere at any particular time. It is best enjoyed at a carefree pace…possibly with a glass of wine.
Overall, Carl Sandburg’s “The Prairie Years” is a fascinating and enjoyable cultural and literary experience, even if disappointing from a historical perspective. For many reasons it is not ideal as an introduction to Abraham Lincoln for the modern reader seeking a comprehensive, detailed and historically potent account of his life. But as a second or third source, designed to add splashes of color and flavor unavailable elsewhere, Sandburg’s work on Lincoln’s early years is quite well-suited.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
I’m curious about which book you’ll read next after you finish Sandburg: will it be Guelzo or Goodwin?
After Sandburg I think I’m heading straight to Goodwin. Can’t wait any longer to see what the fuss (excitement) is about…
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Malcolm Greenhill said:
Steve, among my admittedly eccentric friends I frequently hear the view that Lincoln, far from being one of our best presidents, was arguably the worst. The argument goes something like this.
Eliminating slavery was the only morally worthy justification for a civil war but going to war to maintain the States territorial integrity was a reprehensible objective. If the North had let the South secede slavery would have disappeared on its own because the North had been subsidizing slavery by returning runaway slaves to the South. Instead, by going to war a federal government that once interfered very little in the affairs of individual states was transformed into an overbearing bureaucracy that intruded into daily life with taxes, drafts, surveillance, subsidies and regulations.
I haven’t completely formed my view of Lincoln but he has certainly proved less “brilliant” and far more fallible than I had expected. His background was far more humble than I knew and he is nearly the ideal version of a “self-made man”. As he entered the White House most of his decisions (political and otherwise) seem to have been brilliant – or else particularly serendipitous. But during his time in office, much about his presidency seems naive, excessively cautious, and occasionally inept: from how he handled his Union generals to the timidity with which he approached the eradication of slavery.
Hindsight obviously provides us with clarity that Lincoln didn’t magically possess. Some of his less successful actions (or his reluctance to act) were a result of a lack of good information, a lack of good options or a cultural/societal reality far different than that which we face.
Although I don’t necessarily agree with the premise the South should have been allowed to secede, it makes for an interesting thought experiment. Slavery may well have disappeared in short order under its own weight (though not without disruptive last gasps) but it would be interesting to know how long either the North or South would have held themselves together – or maintained their own new independence – in the face of such a precedent (secession as an acceptable means of dispute resolution).
And I have a hard time blaming Lincoln for the steady encroachment of the federal bureaucracy. Its “tentacles” were outstretched long before he was born (flourishing under some early presidents who were famously previously unsupportive of a strong federal government) and has continued to expand with little pause since his death.
Perhaps the only thing I’m certain of: Lincoln was president during a monumentally unique time and he finally faced challenges that several previous presidents avoided (to the detriment of their legacies of course). And although there is a great deal to be admired about Lincoln, both as a person and as a president, his “legend” seems even larger than the person or his presidency.
Have you or have you considered reading Thomas DiLorenzo’s books on Lincoln, for a negative / libertarian (or “eccentric”) view of the president?
I haven’t, yet, myself, but I plan to someday.
How’s your progress in the War Years? I know they’re long volumes.
3 volumes down, 1 volume to go. Slower progress than I had planned but I’m hoping to finish up over the Memorial Day weekend and move on to Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” The War Years has been a more difficult slog than anticipated but I’m still glad it made my list.