Commentary Magazine


A Group of Lincoln Books

Aspects of Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln: A Biography.
by Benjamin P. Thomas.
Knopf. 548 PP. #5.75.

Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War: A Foreigner”s Account.
by Marquis Adolphe De Chambrun.
Random House. 174 pp. $2.75.

Lincoln: A Picture Story Of His Life.
by Stefan Lorant.
Harper. 256 pp. $6.00.

Lincoln and The Russians.
by Albert A. Woldman.
World. 311 pp. $5.00.

 

As Benjamin P. Thomas’s biography of Lincoln continues week after week on the New York Times best-seller list, it may well set in motion a new trend in the writing of American historical biography. Over the past decade and more, multi-volumed biographical treatments of famous Americans have become the vogue. Such works are, in terms of sheer bulk, the 20th-century counterparts of the 19th-century historians” ponderous narrative histories of the sort turned out by Bancroft, Rhodes, McMaster, Schouler, and others. However, whereas the latter historians attempted full treatments of relatively large segments of American history, nowadays most historians who like to write at length turn their attention to the individual and become biographers.

Dumas Malone is doing Jefferson in four or five volumes, of which two have already been published; Douglas S. Freeman has done Robert E. Lee in four, with another three volumes devoted to Lee’s lieutenants. The indefatigable Mr. Freeman has also published five volumes of a work on George Washington—and still has to cover Washington’s career through the Presidency and his subsequent retirement. The late James G. Randall planned to devote five volumes to a “definitive” biography of Lincoln, but death stayed his hand shortly after the publication of the third volume. Frank Freidel, who has just published the first volume of a projected eight on Franklin Roosevelt, threatens to out-heavy the heavies and start a new division. Mr. Freidel, it should be observed, is a young man and a rapid worker, but in view of the task that lies ahead of him. one can only wish him godspeed.

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I do not mean lo deprecate these monuments of industrious historical scholarship and their claim to be “definitive” treatments. (Though I doubt whether they are that: no book, regardless of length, is “definitive,” and every new generation will still have to write its own history of the past.) Dr. Thomas, however. shows the amazing ability to say just about all that the average interested person need know about Lincoln within the confines of a single well-organized and well-written volume; and. what is more, people are buying, reading, and even talking about his book—which is not the case with the expensive multi-volumed “definitives,” whose readers must lx as dedicated as their writers. I hope that the professional historians will profit by Dr. Thomas’s example, and begin to acquaint the American people with their heritage by means of short and readable presentations.

Dr. Thomas deserves particular praise for the way in which he has escaped that dilem ma of the biographer which Dumas Malon. for one, holds partly responsible for the tendency to write long rather than short biographies. According to Malonc. the historical biographer is frustrated by the inability to expose the well springs of his subject’s behavior, and he tends to compensate for this frustration by discoursing at length on his subject’s “times,” with the result that his narrative sprawls. As a means of character analysis, some scholars, even Lincoln scholars, have sought to place their subjects within a Freudian framework, hoping thereby to accomplish their work with relative brevity. Such an effort was L. Pierce Clark’s Lincoln: A Psycho-biography, published in 1933. But. as the late Dr. Randall once said, “Freudian psychoanalysis is one thing, and the transference of Freudian psychoanalysis to biography without adequate biographical or historical basis is a very different thing.” Because the very nature of historical evidence limits the value of a Freudian approach, Dr. Thomas has wisely refrained from attempting anything of the sort—and still he has presented an understandable portrait of Lincoln. It is his art as historian, rather than Freudian insight, that has enabled him to strike just the right balance between Lincoln’s “life” and his “times”; to cut through the great mass of Lincoln materials so that the true lineaments of character are discernible to the reader.

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But one would have to go far to surpass the Marquis de Chambrun in character portrayal. His book is a particularly good example of first-hand reporting by [hose who knew Lincoln in the flesh, and should have published in English long ago.

This is how Lincoln impressed the Marquis early in 1865. shortly before his assassination. “lie is exceedingly thin, not so very tall. His face denotes an immense force of resistance and extreme melancholy. It is plain that this man has suffered deeply. His eyes are superb, large and with a very profound expression when he fixes them on you. It cannot be said that he is awkward: his simplicity is too great for that. He has no pretense to having worldly ways and is unused to society, but there is nothing shocking in this, quite the contrary. The elevation of his mind is too evident; his heroic sentiments arc so apparent that one thinks of nothing else. Nobody could be less of a parvenu. As President of a mighty nation. he remains just the same as he must have appeared while felling trees in Illinois. But I must add that he dominates everyone present and maintains his exalted position without the slightest effort.”

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The Lorant book has some fine pictures and illustrations and the text is better and more complete than in most picture books. I did happen to notice one discrepancy between this and Dr. Thomas’s version. Thomas has Lincoln winning the wrestling match in New Salem with Jack Armstrong; according to Lorant, Lincoln got no better than a draw. This kind of discrepancy keeps popping up in books about Lincoln, as a result of the contradictory impressions of the “eyewitnesses” upon whom the historian must at times rely. Which goes to show what a hazardous art, or science, history is condemned to be at best.

The least attractive of this batch of Lincoln books is Albert Woldman’s Lincoln and the Russians—simply because the author has achieved the aim he set himself as a monographist, which was to exhaust a narrow theme. Basing his narrative on the reports to St. Petersburg of Baron de Stoeckl, Russian minister to the United States during Lincoln’s administration, Woldman’s work is of undeniable value to the specialist. However, as with most monographs, it is long on documentation and quotations from sources but short on effective presentation, synthesis, and explanation. Moreover, the moral of the book—that Lincoln’s political collaboration with the Russian Czar offers a precedent for contemporary collaboration between democratic America and Stalinist Russia—is one that, to put it mildly, must be regarded as very dubious.

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