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See Illinois (unpublished)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one, compiled as part of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture, has the further drawback of being no longer current.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.
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.”
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, 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.)
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. The insights that can be gleaned from a careful attention to those years 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 Abraham Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer by John J. Duff (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1960) has been rendered out of date by recent scholarship. The Lincoln Legals Project collected all surviving documentation of Lincoln as a lawyer, published as the four-volume The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, Daniel Stowell, editor (Charlottesville: 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 (DeKalb: 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 (Lexington: 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 spent most of his central Illinois years as a lawyer. 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 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1948), Riddle’s Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957), and Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress by long-time mid-Illinois congressman Paul Findley (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979).
Three of the seven debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were held in mid-Illinois cities. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition as edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson (Urbana: 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 (Urbana: 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 (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamon County Historical Society, 2006).
Angle borrowed his approach from an earlier book written by a friend and fellow Springfieldian Benjamin P. Thomas. Critic John Hallwas calls Thomas’ Lincoln’s New Salem (Springfield, Ill.: 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.
It is a measure of the importance given Lincoln 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 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, repr. New York: Da Capo, 1989). Abe Lincoln in Springfield by A. J. Liebling (New York: 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 (New York: 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 (Mechanicsburg, Penn.: 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 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953); Jean H. Baker’s modestly feminist view in Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: 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. ●