From one of the great historians of nineteenth-century America, a revelatory and enthralling new biography of Lincoln, many years in the making, that brings him to life within his turbulent age.
Lincoln's lineage was considered auspicious by Emerson, Whitman, and others who prophesied that a new man from the West would emerge to balance North and South. From New England Puritan stock on his father's side and Virginia Cavalier gentry on his mother's, Lincoln was linked by blood to the central conflict of the age. And an enduring theme of his life, Reynolds shows, was his genius for striking a balance between opposing forces. Lacking formal schooling but with an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement, Lincoln had a talent for wrestling and bawdy jokes that made him popular with his peers, even as his appetite for poetry and prodigious gifts for memorization set him apart from them through his childhood, his years as a lawyer, and his entrance into politics.
No one can transcend the limitations of their time, and Lincoln was no exception. But what emerges from Reynolds's masterful reckoning is a man who at each stage in his life managed to arrive at a broader view of things than all but his most enlightened peers. As a politician, he moved too slowly for some and too swiftly for many, but he always pushed toward justice while keeping the whole nation in mind. Abeculminates, of course, in the Civil War, the defining test of Lincoln and his beloved country. Reynolds shows us the extraordinary range of cultural knowledge Lincoln drew from as he shaped a vision of true union, transforming, in Martin Luther King Jr.'s words, "the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
Abraham Lincoln did not come out of nowhere. But if he was shaped by his times, he also managed at his life's fateful hour to shape them to an extent few could have foreseen. Ultimately, this is the great drama that astonishes us still, and that Abe brings to fresh and vivid life. The measure of that life will always be part of our American education.
David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. His other books include Beneath the American Renaissance (winner of the Christian Gauss Award), John Brown, Abolitionist, and Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America. He is a regular book reviewer for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The Wall Street Journal.
James Oakes, one of the leading historians of nineteenth-century America, has an international reputation for path-breaking scholarship.In a series of influential books and essays, he tackled the history of the United States from the Revolution through the Civil War. His early work focused on the South, examining slavery as an economic and social system that shaped Southern life. His pioneering books include The Ruling Race (1982; 2nd ed., 1998); Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (1990); The Radical and the Republican:Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007); and his latest, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 (2012). The latter two garnered, respectively, the 2008 and 2013 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, an annual award for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War era.