Abraham Lincoln, American history, biographies, book reviews, David Reynolds, New Release, presidential biographies, Presidents
David Reynolds’s “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times” was published seven weeks ago (September 2020) and is currently the best selling book on the 16th president. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of nine books including “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography” and “John Brown, Abolitionist.”
Reynolds describes his book as a “cultural biography” with the goal of placing Lincoln in the context of his era and exploring how the social currents of the times impacted him (and vice versa). But it is far more “cultural” and far less “biography” than some might suspect, and with 932 pages of text (and nearly 100 pages of notes) this oeuvre is not for the faint of heart.
The author’s premise is straightforward: Lincoln’s image as a self-made man is far too simplistic and his greatness is largely a result of his ability to tap into the culture of his times. Because of this, the book is less a comprehensive survey of his life and more a review of the factors which led to his political success. Reynolds also admits – at least twice – to viewing Lincoln as America’s greatest president. Fortunately, the book’s probity does not suffer under the weight of this sentiment.
At its best, “Abe” is magnificent. Reynold possesses a keen understanding of Lincoln’s era with all its swirling complexity, and he explains his subject’s engagement with the times with admirable dexterity. Had Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Joseph Ellis and Michael Burlingame conspired to examine Lincoln’s character and his times, I imagine this is very much the book which would have resulted.
Of all the topics this book investigates, by far the deepest and most ubiquitous is its examination of his attitude toward slavery and racial equality. Also extensively considered is the impact of religion and faith on his personality and political philosophies.
Other highlights include an interesting review of Lincoln’s principal romances, an analysis of the legal cases he pursued during his years as a frontier lawyer, a summary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and interesting sketches of several of President Lincoln’s cabinet officials. There book also features an excellent chapter analyzing two of Lincoln’s greatest speeches (the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address) and the circumstances under which they were composed and delivered.
But readers expecting a colorful or comprehensive introduction to Lincoln’s life and legacy will be disappointed. Not only is this not a traditional biography, but at times it hardly seems a biography at all. Instead, this is a judicious but focused examination of the era and the man – both inextricably linked.
In that respect, many readers will find this book more like a research paper than an engaging biography. It can be abstract, esoteric and philosophical. It can also be dry – though it is rarely dull. More importantly, the narrative pre-supposes a facility with Lincoln’s life and times that some readers will not possess. And while it is broadly chronological, the narrative prefers to proceed thematically.
In addition, readers do not gain much insight into Lincoln’s personal life or his most fascinating friendships, though his mercurial wife does receive significant (and obviously deserved) attention. Finally, the narrative moves swiftly past many important historical events which would receive far more notice in a traditional biography.
Overall, David Reynolds‘s biography of Abraham Lincoln is excellent for what it is designed to be: a character analysis embedded within the context of his times. Readers hoping to understand how Lincoln’s environment shaped his views – and how his actions influenced the world around him – will find this study compelling. But anyone seeking a thorough, comprehensive and engaging narrative of Lincoln’s life and legacy will do better to look elsewhere.
Overall Rating: “Unrated” as a biography
Greg Brooking, PhD
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Excellent review. I have a copy hanging around and was trying to figure out when to tackle it. Overall, the reviews seem relatively mixed (leaning positive) on the book.
I was also wondering if his John Brown book would be worthwhile. Some have called it hagiographic. Stephen Oates’ book is also under consideration.
I’ve heard the same about his Brown bio, but if you do read it (or Oates’) I’ll be interested to see what you think.
Mary Strong-Spaid said:
Good review. Lincoln had to navigate through tough times, and I am sure his environment did influence his actions. One day, perhaps there will be a comprehensive presidential biography written about Donald Trump. There will be so much that people could learn from an unbiased survey of his life and legacy, because the news media has not been able to give an honest appraisal.
Marshall Stair said:
Thank you Steve! On my drift through the presidents I have arrived at Lincoln and am a few chapters in on Burlingame’s novel, and what a delicious treat it is!! Given the popular reviews of Abe, I was a little concerned it might become the go to book on Lincoln. Sounds like it is a worthwhile read, but not as a comprehensive biography. Lincoln books are like a menu at a great restaurant with many enticing options from which to choose. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this true for all his predecessors.
I find that Lincoln, in particular, offers so many compelling choices in a variety of different “flavors” that almost anyone can become engrossed in his story. And while Burlingame’s isn’t a light or quick read, for the right reader it is absolutely magnificent.
Reynolds’s “Abe” is simply not designed (or destined) to be an introductory “go to” on Lincoln – a fact that was not obvious to me when I first started considering it. But it didn’t take me long to figure that out once I had committed 🙂 As a 12th or 13th book on Lincoln it’s pretty good, but it is definitely not a great place for most people to start on the 16th president!
Marshall Stair said:
Thank you! Someone gave me Doris Kearns Goodwin Leadership book, which peaked my interest in LBJ, which eventually lead me to Caro’s books, which I absolutely loved, at least the first two I’ve read, and made me realized I love history through biographies. Somehow I found your site and was inspired by it to start from Washington. More importantly, the site aided in selecting books and I find the reviews very accurate. Just wanted to say thanks, really enjoying the journey and just may starting reading more than one on each president.
Like Caro, Burlingame’s length is intimidating to me for sure, but once you realize how enjoyable it is, the length provides comfort knowing there is so much more to enjoy, like money in the bank, each chapter or story becomes like another delicious course to savor in a long great meal. I just started the Lincoln Douglas debates chapter and wow Burlingame does a great job making it exciting.
Thank you for enriching my life, keep the reviews and suggestions coming!
The Wall Street Journal named this one of the 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020.
Given the time you left this comment I suspect you and I both get the same email notifications from WSJ 🙂 I had no sooner read this news than I saw your comment in my inbox. Personally, I was even more excited about the new Carter, Tyler and Monroe biographies…
I am indeed on the WSJ list.
Adding Logevall’s JFK to your list would round out my 2020 assessment of best books. The Tyler and Monroe books will be standards for many years. It will be interesting to see how Kai Bird’s book on Carter compares to Alter’s.
I’ve been debating whether to wait for Logevall’s 2nd volume before reading them both back-to-back. But everything I have heard about the first installment leaves me wanting to read it sooner rather than later.