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