Some Books About Lincoln
Writers report on their searches for Illinois's hero
See Illinois (unpublished)
Any list of good Lincoln books must be selective. This one, compiled as part of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture, has the further drawback of being no longer current. Still, the books are good even if the list isn't.
See also The State of Lincoln Scholarship.
Lincoln looms larger in the historical literature of Illinois than Illinois looms in the literature of Lincoln. One-volume biographies of conventional length scant Lincoln’s early years of necessity. In a 2008 review, historian Darrel E. Bigham noted that major recent biographies such as David Donald's Lincoln (1995) devote only about three percent of their text to the early life, including that spent in Illinois. In a 2008 review, Darrel E. Bigham noted that literature on the period prior to Lincoln’s election to the Illinois legislature in 1834 “is notably thin.”
After having been discounted for years by historians more interested in his presidential years, Lincoln’s crucial Illinois years are again considered a fit subject of specific attention. Michael Burlingame’s unconventionally lengthy two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) was able to devote all of its first volume to the period from birth until 1860. Burlingame might not have said all that might be said about that period of Lincoln's life, but he said much more than is usually said. (An untrimmed electronic version is available via the internet thanks to Knox College’s Lincoln Studies Center.)
The insights that can be gleaned from a careful attention to those years also fill Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years (University of Illinois Press, 1997) and Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (Vintage, 1999), both by the indispensable Douglas L. Wilson.
Lincoln spent most of his mid-Illinois years as a lawyer. Abraham Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer by John J. Duff (Rinehart & Co., 1960) has been rendered out of date by recent scholarship. The Lincoln Legals Project collected all surviving documentation of Lincoln's career as a lawyer, published as the four-volume The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, Daniel Stowell, editor (University of Virginia Press, 2008).
Among the works that draw on this trove to throw light on this long neglected aspect of Lincoln’s life are An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln by Mark E. Steiner (Northern Illinois University Press, 2006). The essay collection Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President by Roger Billings and Frank J. Williams (The University Press of Kentucky, 2012) is similarly pertinent to students of mid-Illinois, considering that Lincoln’s cases reflect the evolving social and economic life of the region. Lincoln the Lawyer by Brian Dirck (University of Illinois Press, 2007) is especially good, being an admirably well-written book that shines an informed light not only on the law as practiced at the time but on Lincoln and the Illinois he lived in.
Lincoln first forayed into national politics as a mid-Illinois congressman. Among the works on the subject are Lincoln Runs for Congress by Donald W. Riddle (Rutgers University Press, 1948), Riddle’s Congressman Abraham Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, 1957), and Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress by long-time mid-Illinois congressman Paul Findley (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979).
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition as edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson (University of Illinois Press, 2008) is touted as the first rigorously edited and annotated version of the debates. The author of a typical review wrote, “The book combines intellectual and tactile appeal with the best versions we have of what Douglas and Lincoln said . . . . a discovery—or a rediscovery—of what that signal event meant.”
Among the highlights of They Broke the Prairie by Earnest Elmo Calkins (University of Illinois Press, 1989) is the account of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate at Knox, according to Rodney O. Davis in an introduction that reprint edition. "Calkins's description of the community's involvement in its Lincoln-Douglas debate is the best such account we have for any of the debate sites."
Ohioan Paul M. Angle in 1925 was named executive secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association (originally the Lincoln Centennial Association) in Springfield and later served thirteen years as Illinois State Historian. While Angle never essayed a full-length narrative biography of Lincoln, he did contrive to write a biography of the city in which he lived for twenty-three years—Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln's Springfield, 1821–1865, published in Springfield 1935 by the Abraham Lincoln Association and again in 1971 by Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Gaps in that work are partly filled by Lincoln's Springfield: The Underground Railroad by Richard A. Hart (Sangamon County Historical Society, 2006).
Angle borrowed his approach from an earlier book written by his friend and fellow Springfieldian Benjamin P. Thomas. Critic John Hallwas calls Thomas’ Lincoln’s New Salem (Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934) a “superb achievement” and “a stylistic gem.” Hallwas adds that this extended essay blends cultural description and biography to produce a portrait in which the man and the place are melded; just as Lincoln’s life shaped the later book about the village, the village had shaped Lincoln’s life. Thomas also was the author of what was for many years considered the best one-volume biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (Knopf, 1952); a reissue edition from Southern Illinois University Press in 2008 includes a new introduction by Burlingame.
It is a measure of the importance given Lincoln by historians that even his colleagues are thought to deserve biographies. Some of those colleagues were mid-Illinoisans. David Herbert Donald wrote the life of one of Lincoln’s Springfield law partners in Lincoln's Herndon: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, but published in various later editions). Abe Lincoln in Springfield by A. J. Liebling (F.-R. Publishing, 1950) features interesting interviews with several key figures in Lincoln scholarship of that era. Willard L. King recalled the man who directed Lincoln’s presidential campaigns in Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis (Harvard University Press, 1960), based on the then-newly available Davis papers. “Life in the circuit in the 1830s and 1840s, with greasy, food, dirty taverns, verminous rooms, and tedious Sundays,” wrote Allan Nevins in a foreword, “has never been so well depicted.” Works about others among Lincoln’s political associates are described below in “Politics and government.”
It is not only the people but the places Lincoln knew that have been made subjects of books. Abraham Lincoln in Decatur by Otto R. Kyle (Vantage Press, 1957) was praised by Millikin University history Professor Daniel J. Gage as “all that is likely ever to be known about Lincoln's associations with Macon County and Decatur,” but added that the author’s “frequent use of probably, likely, undoubtedly, and possibly, in earlier pages, makes one aware of the distressing meagerness records of this portion of Lincoln's life, and of the strong temptation to amplify them.”
Interesting new works on crucial aspects of Lincoln's experience in mid-Illinois include Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point by Lewis E. Lehrman (Stackpole Books, 2008). One reviewer notes that Lincoln’s “Peoria speech” in 1854 stood out because it “combined for the first time Lincoln's expansive knowledge of the history of slavery legislation with his innate ability to use logic and humor to create an overwhelming argument against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.”
One is unwise to overlook Mary Todd as a factor in Lincoln’s life. She has excited as much partisan bickering after her death as she did alive. For decades, the pro-Mary faction reached first for Ruth Painter Randall’s Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Little, Brown and Company, 1953); Jean H. Baker’s modestly feminist view in Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (W. W. Norton, 1987) is probably the best of the lot.
The casual tourist who wishes to get out of the study can do worse than Following in Lincoln's Footsteps: A Complete Annotated Reference to Hundreds of Historical Sites Visited by Abraham Lincoln by Ralph V. Gary (Basic Books, 2001).
Lincoln continues to attract the non-historian. Travel writer Jan Morris’s heartfelt and graceful Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest (Simon & Schuster 2001) has her in search of the real, as opposed to the mythological Lincoln, a journey that brought to central Illinois. Land Of Lincoln: Adventures In Abe‘s America by Andrew Ferguson (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007) manages to be more than merely amusing as the author seeks to divine the mystery of people’s devotion to the man; the work includes a trenchant critique of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture