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Lincoln biography: rail-splitter's feast


"Lincoln" by David Herbert Donald. New York: Simon & Schuster. 575 pages. $35 In early February of 1861 President-elect Abraham Lincoln, just sprouting his famous beard and preparing to leave Illinois for the White House, paid a farewell cell on his old law partner William H. Herndon.

For 16 years, the two Kentuckians had been together, and Lincoln wondered if they'd ever exchanged a cross word. Never, said Herndon. Had "Billy" ever seen Lincoln drunk? Nope, said Herndon. There. They'd done all right by each other.

As Lincoln was leaving with an armload of papers, he noticed their "Lincoln & Herndon" law shingle. "Let it hang there undisturbed," he said. "If I live I'm coming back some time, end then we'll go right on practicing law as if nothing had ever happened."

In David Herbert Donald's new book, "Lincoln," this is but one of the rich, irresistible scenes the historian builds in his hefty yet spare biography of America's greatest statesman.

There are plenty more:

Lincoln, coatless, holding his little boy, Ted, by the hand as they walk the blasted streets of Richmond at war's end, while joyous African-Americans hail the perspiring "Messiah!"

Lincoln, challenged to a duel while protecting the good name of his future wife, selected broadswords for weapons and, remarking of his opponent: "I could have split him from the crown (to) . . . the backbone."

Lincoln, with his chin in his right hand, leaning forward in his Ford's Theater rocking chair as John Wilkes Booth slides his derringer through darkness and stage laughter toward the back of the president's head.

Donald's book is billed as the first full-length biography in a generation, a work by a renowned, life-long Lincoln scholar, and the most up-to-date of the almost 4,000 works written on the onetime New Salem village postmaster.

And this book does have a fresh theme, and a lean uncluttered focus: Donald seeks to portray a passive Lincoln stunningly unprepared for high office and swept along by the torrent of events; yet a Lincoln with a complex and brilliant intellect and what the author calls "an enormous capacity for growth."

Donald, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and emeritus professor of history at Harvard, also keeps his disciplined story tightly held to Lincoln's point of view to what Lincoln knew and what made him react.

On the great battles of the Civil War, for example, there is little. Vicksburg and Gettysburg are both handled in the same, lone paragraph. The Monitor and the Merrimack get one, too. As do Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg. Appomattox, alas, gets scarcely a mention.

But no matter. Here, instead, is the strangely modern personality of the police brutality and environmental pollution cases, and who suffered from constipation, insomnia and depression.

Here, as well, is the supreme party tactician, a man who breathed politics and whose abhorrence of slavery was balanced against political calculation even amid the bloody crucible of the Civil War.

Almost all of the book is superb. The preface may be the best part. The essay on sources, at the end, is a fascinating, if diplomatic, rundown on a century of Lincoln scholarship.

And packed in between - save for some slow spots about the tangled mid-century politics Lincoln loved - is a 575-page rail-splitter's feast.

With the fresh lake and tight frame, and the classic sketches at Ford's Theater, in beaten Richmond, and on the speakers platform at Gettysburg, one paves the book with the eerie feeling of knowing this thoroughly-known hero quite a measure more.

Michael E Ruane was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, 1991-1992. He is presently Pentagon correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers, and previously was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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