In the mid-1960s, the Guinness World Records claimed that more had been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other figure in world history. As the bicentennial of his birth approaches, Lincoln has surely lengthened his lead. Here are some of the most intriguing recent volumes.
by James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press / 96 pages / $12.95
At just 96 pages, this probably qualifies more as an essay than an actual biography, but if you consider it as the first book you read on Abraham Lincoln, it's a bargain. McPherson, our greatest living Civil War historian, has written a clear-headed narrative that leads you through the major facts of Lincoln's life as well as a superb bibliography that recaps the history of Lincoln literature.
McPherson's summaries of Lincoln's major accomplishments as well as his deficiencies are lucid and balanced. On Lincoln's record on individual rights during the Civil War, for instance, "One thing can be said with certainty: compared with the enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, Lincoln's curtailment of civil liberties during the far greater internal crisis ... seems to have been quite mild."
by George McGovern
Times Books (Henry Holt) / 192 pages / $22
Lincoln is one of the few presidents to be claimed by both liberals and conservatives. This volume by former Senator McGovern, a former Democratic presidential candidate, examines Lincoln's record from a liberal point of view, particularly his early and apparent contradictory views on slavery - his platform made clear that his purpose was to contain slavery in the Southern states, not to abolish it. An example: In Lincoln, writes McGovern, "We see the decency of popular government. Its role, then as now, was, as Lincoln wrote, 'to elevate the condition of men ... to afford all an unfettered start in the race of life.' " Simply put, McGovern makes a convincing case that America's first Republican president was really our first Democratic president.
Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer
by Fred Kaplan
HarperCollins / 406 pages / $27.95
Just when you think every aspect of Lincoln's life and thought has been covered, someone like Kaplan sees him from yet a new perspective. Kaplan, author of superb literary biographies of Mark Twain and Henry James, examines Lincoln as a wordsmith and as both a creator and shaper of prose literature. In the Gettysburg Address, "Lincoln encapsulated a lifetime of experience and the dynamic interconnection between life and death. ... It affirms that the poetry of loss is, by virtue of its poetic essence, also the poetry that makes sense out of life."
Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer is essential reading for any Lincoln student preparing to dip into the rich field of Lincoln's writings, from volumes of letters and speeches as well as legal briefs. He was, in Kaplan's words, "the Twain of our politics. Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience for posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness."
The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now
Edited by Harold Holzer
The Library of America / 1,008 pages / $40
An intellectual feast for Lincoln devotees, this book collects essays, editorials, poems and entries from journals and notebooks, even passages from fiction, from 1860 to today into a single volume. Just a partial list of the contributors is awe-inspiring: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson and Garry Wills, to name just a few of the more prominent Americans, and Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, H.G. Wells, Winston Churchill and Karl Marx among the Europeans. (The latter wrote, in a public letter to Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, that even those who hated Lincoln "have now at last found out that he was a man, neither to be browbeaten by adversity, nor intoxicated by success, inflexibly pressing on to this great goal.")
One of the most intriguing entries is the last one, from Barack Obama, who, declaring his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., told his constituency that he wanted to take up Lincoln's "unfinished business of perfecting our union and building a better America."
Allen Barra is a contributing editor for American Heritage magazine. His next book is "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee," due out in March from W.W. Norton.