Blogs > Cliopatria > Caleb Crain: Reviews of Two New Lincoln Biographies

Oct 31, 2005 1:38 pm

Caleb Crain: Reviews of Two New Lincoln Biographies

At the age of seven, Abraham Lincoln poked his rifle through a crack in the family’s log cabin and shot a turkey. It was the high point of his career as a hunter, and also the end of it. By his own account, he never afterward “pulled a trigger on any larger game.” He was later seen returning baby birds to their nests and defending turtles from boys with hot coals. When he was twenty-three, he captained a militia to fight Indians in Illinois but never saw action. “I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes,” he recalled. Three decades later, he presided over a war that killed more Americans than any other, before or since. “Doesn’t it strike you as queer,” he asked an Indiana congressman, “that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”

The paradox is at the heart of Lincoln’s appeal. Nothing about his personality was simple, and questions of state were involved in its complexities. Did he lie about why he went to war? Did he need to be so aggressive—more so than many of his generals—about winning? Was the Civil War worth it? Lincoln was a man of many doubts, but not about these questions. Despite an unassuming manner, he fought with startling conviction. “I am a patient man—always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance,” he told a Maryland legislator in 1862, adding, however, that “it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”

Anyone who wants to understand Lincoln today must first dig through a century and a half of other people’s attempts, but every biographer hopes that, with more research and a fresh angle, misconceptions will fall away and the man himself will come into view. In two new books, Joshua Wolf Shenk and Doris Kearns Goodwin pursue opposite strategies to catch a glimpse of the true Lincoln: Shenk goes deep, and Goodwin goes wide. In “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness” (Houghton Mifflin; $25), Shenk, a journalist and an independent scholar, argues that Lincoln suffered from depression. He believes that the illness deepened Lincoln’s capacity for empathy and that Lincoln brought to the Presidency a self-discipline he learned while managing his illness. Goodwin, the author of three histories of twentieth-century Presidents, agrees in passing that Lincoln had great “emotional intelligence,” but his inner life does not much concern her. In “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (Simon & Schuster; $35), she situates Lincoln in his executive context. She thinks it was a stroke of managerial genius for Lincoln to appoint to his first Cabinet three rivals he had beaten for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860. By painting a group portrait of these men, she hopes to see Lincoln from a different vantage—reflected in their eyes.

Both Shenk and Goodwin have new stories, many of which they have found in reminiscences. Because people revise their memories as they age, scientific-minded Lincoln scholars have scorned reminiscence since the mid-twentieth century. In the past decade, however, biographers have given it a second look, in part because there are almost no other sources that describe Lincoln’s youth. Shenk is self-conscious about the risks; Goodwin seems to be simply omnivorous. By coincidence, both make use of a hitherto obscure anecdote published in the New York World in 1908. In the mountains of North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy is reported to have shown a photograph of Lincoln to a local tribesman. The tribesman “gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer,” Shenk and Goodwin quote in chorus. Then their quotations diverge: Shenk goes on to describe the “secret sorrow” that the tribesman saw in Lincoln’s features; Goodwin relates Tolstoy’s comment that Lincoln’s “supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”...

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