Fred Kaplan: There are too many Lincoln books. Which are indispensable?





... Americans have reason to be proud of their Lincoln literary cadre, especially of scholars like Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, who created the most valuable source of information on Lincoln, Herndon's Informants (1997). It's a painstaking compilation of the work of William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, who spent 25 years after the president's death interviewing and corresponding with people who had known Lincoln. But it's not a book for the general reader, and not all of the informants' claims are necessarily to be believed.

Neither are some of the approaches to Lincoln over the past 50 years; they change with the times and with what's ideologically fashionable. Of the Freudian genre, my favorite is George B. Forgie's Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (1979). It may be wrong-headed, but it's quite compelling. So, too, is Harry V. Jaffa's brilliant and ground-breaking Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959), which has a libertarian flavor and is a favorite of conservative think tanks. C. A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2005) is highly provocative, imputing homosexual experience to Lincoln without evidence for the claim. Like many of the ideological books about Lincoln, maybe it should be read -- but in the same way and for the same reasons one would read books that over the years have claimed Lincoln for Christianity without noticing that he did not believe in miracles, immortality or the divinity of Jesus.

I have a handful of books to recommend to the general reader: Allen C. Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President (1999) for bringing to our attention Lincoln's intellectual powers; Gabor S. Boritt's Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (1978) for its emphasis on Lincoln's economic philosophy, which should be of special interest at the present moment; and Garry Wills's exemplary Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (1992), which spawned a genre of books focusing on single speeches and remains the most intellectually exhilarating of them. David Herbert Donald's Lincoln (1995) is still the best one-volume biography. Michael Burlingame's recent, two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008) deserves mention, if only to explain why I highly recommend his earlier book, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994). A Life is a 2,000-page compendium that works on the principle that nothing should be left out or condensed. Burlingame's skills as a biographer and a stylist are modest; he's right on target, though, about how terrible Mary Todd Lincoln was and about Lincoln's keen sexual interest in women. Burlingame dealt with these matters more concisely in the earlier book, which is one of my favorites....


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