Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $35 hb, 202 pp
Weidenfeld & Nicolson were both wise and fortunate in their choice of Thomas Keneally to write a study of Abraham Lincoln for their Lives series. He in turn gifted them, and us, with a story that listens closely to Lincoln’s words and sees some shape in the internal and external demons that so often troubled his life. Keneally’s narrative moves quietly alongside the Illinois rail-splitter as Lincoln transforms himself from local small-time politician to President of the USA.
Keneally’s book is a short one: about 60,000 words, no footnotes, eight pages of ‘Sources’. As a compact volume, it might be perceived to be ‘potted Lincoln’, a quick read for a general audience. This is not accurate. Keneally has found a path in writing about Lincoln that has eluded numerous others. Many contributors to the vast library of Lincolniana have agreed that Lincoln transformed himself into the man who won the presidency in 1860 and then, reluctantly resupplying Union forces at Fort Sumter in April of 1861, turned the threat of secession into reality. He issued the proclamation freeing the slaves of the South and won re-election in 1864. But the same writers have often diminished Lincoln’s agency in making his career by invoking destiny. Subtly, they have given an undue explanatory force to Destiny or Tragedy. There is Carl Sandburg’s lonely country boy, his prairie language, his being earthed in both the pro-slavery of southern Illinois and the anti-slavery of the state’s north. Sandburg’s already doomed Lincoln: crossing the state talkin’ up slavery and talkin’ it down.