“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