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What I’m Reading (No. 99): Lincoln
While I was waiting for a biography of William Henry Harrison (POTUS #9) to arrive, I was able to read a couple great books about POTUS #16: Abraham Lincoln.
The man is absolutely magnetic to read about. In novel form, I was absolutely absorbed by Stephen Harrigan’s A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. It follows the young Southern Illinois-based Lincoln as he goes from vagabond, to successful lawyer, to budding politician, to husband and father.
I also devoured what’s often considered the best single-volume biography of Lincoln — simply titled Lincoln — by David Herbert Donald. It’s long-ish (though not really, considering the lengthy works on the man), but relatively easy reading.
I really enjoyed writing this one and I hope you’re as enamored by Lincoln as I’ve been.
A Friend of Mr. Lincoln by Stephen Harrigan (2016, 415 pages)
“he was different . . . Most of the men who were going around promoting themselves and their schemes were smoother than Lincoln, not as raw, not as striking in appearance, not as obviously self-invented. . . . He looked like a man who did not quite fit in, whom nature had made too tall and loose-jointed, with an unpleasant squeaky voice and some taint of deep, lingering poverty. He seemed to Cage like a man who desperately wanted to be better than the world would ever possibly let him be. But in Lincoln’s case that hunger did not seem underlaid with anger, as with other men it might, but with a strange seeping kindness.”
Young Lincoln is a fascinating man to read about. Quite obviously, plenty of biographical, non-fiction accounts exist, but Harrigan brings him to life in the way that only fiction can.
As a young man in rural Illinois, Lincoln was trying to find his footing. What would he do with his life? Who would he marry? Where would his potent ambition bring him? Amidst a lot of trial and error, he settled on law as a profession, and was as active and capable a lawyer as ever became president.
Aside: Plenty of our chief executives have held the title of lawyer, but only a handful ever actually practiced. Lincoln sometimes argued a dozen cases per day in court, working in that profession until he was about 50 years old before suddenly and surprisingly being elected president.
In this novel, Harrigan has invented a poet and friend of Lincoln named Cage who functions as sort of a fly on the wall in Lincoln’s life. The future president is restless, sometimes depressed, honest (of course), socially awkward (especially with women), and naturally ambitious — even desperate — to make a name for himself in some way, shape, or form.
While plenty of dialogue is a figment of the author’s imagination, Harrigan never deviates from the record of how things actually happened in Lincoln’s life, borrowing from diaries and numerous early accounts and even providing readers some of the famous jokes and anecdotes that Lincoln actually told.
A Friend of Mr. Lincoln reads easily and gives us a pretty clear sense of Lincoln the man during an especially important decade in his life (and in an easier form to digest than a lengthy biography). Even if you’re not into historical fiction, I’m guessing you’ll get a kick out of Harrigan’s novel. I sure did.
A Lincoln List
There have been many thousands of books written and published on nearly every aspect of Lincoln’s life. Here are just a few that I’ve read or are sitting on my shelves right now:
Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer. Great read that compares the lives of these two larger-than-life figures.
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson. One of the more engrossing non-fiction narratives I’ve ever read.
The Last Lincolns by Charles Lachman. A fascinating book on the generations of Lincolns that came after Abe. It’s not a large family tree, as only one of Lincoln’s sons, Robert, survived to adulthood.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. A surprisingly fun romp of a book in which Smith imagines that Lincoln wasn’t just splitting rails, but the heads of vampires too. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds, but it’s highly entertaining and rather well-written too.
Lincoln: Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan. I read about half of this one for an AoM article a few years back. Looks at Lincoln’s life through his writing. I don’t know why I didn’t finish it; what I did read was quite good.
Father Lincoln by Alan Manning. This one is on my shelf and I can’t wait to read about Abe’s relationship with his four sons (two of whom died while Lincoln was still alive).
Becoming Lincoln by William Freehling. Another one that’s on my shelf and eagerly waiting to be read. Covers Lincoln’s pre-war years and how he became the greatest leader our nation has seen.
There’s more I could put on this list. I’ll spare you. If you really want more, email me. Also please email me if there’s books about Lincoln that aren’t on this list that I have to read (I know I need to read Team of Rivals; hopefully early next year).
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (1995, 600 pages)
“With me, the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure.” —Lincoln
Born on the frontier in a one-room cabin. Autodidact with little in the way of schooling. Lawyer from Illinois. President. Emancipation. War stuff. Ford’s Theater. I thought I knew plenty about Abraham Lincoln.
This book corrected me.
In general, I think it’s safe to say that people know more about the outlines of Lincoln’s life than just about any other president. But when you read a full-scale biography of him, you realize Lincoln was even more brilliant and shrewd and inspiring and political and ambitious and empathetic than the cookie cutter version you get in pop culture.
As I said above, there’s something intensely compelling about Lincoln the man — he was so human compared to other famous figures. But Lincoln the politician was also fascinating to read about. While he had practically no experience in government before being elected POTUS (besides two years in Congress in the late 1840s), he taught himself how to be a great political leader. As we know from our nation’s history, anything that can be made political, will be. The Civil War was no different, and indeed even the Emancipation Proclamation was largely a political document (and a brilliant one at that).
It’s hard to imagine what other presidents would have done during the Civil War. Andrew Jackson surely would have had Lincoln’s fortitude, but none of his compassion. Madison would have theorized very well, but likely not done great with the practical matters of being Commander-in-Chief during a war. Lincoln had the perfect constellation of traits to lead the United States of America through its defining crisis.
Donald’s book has long been considered among the best and most readable one-volume biographies of Lincoln around. While the prose is good, Donald isn’t a great narrative writer of history, and seems to give Lincoln less emotion than other historians. (Though, in all honesty, it helped to picture Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln while reading this.)
That said, I’ll repeat what I’ve already conveyed a couple times: Abraham Lincoln is so interesting to me as a subject of study that I flew through this book. For people who are interested in POTUS #16, this is a great starting point. And though I can’t judge it within the canon of Lincoln books (I’ve not read enough of the 15,000 published about the man), I can say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more accessible biography that still goes into great detail about his entire life from cradle to grave.
Okay, that’s all for me. Thank you for reading and for the inbox space. I really appreciate it.