What Would Lincoln Do?

October 8, 2020

Professor David S. Reynolds' latest book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, reveals a 'fresh' portrait of Lincoln that also speaks to our divided times.

Professor David S. Reynolds and his new book, "Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times"
Professor David S. Reynolds and his new book, "Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times"

In his acclaimed new book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His TimesDistinguished Professor David S. Reynolds (English), winner of the Bancroft Prize for his biography of Walt Whitman, offers a portrait of Lincoln that has been hailed as a revelation about the Civil War president and his relationship to the deeply divided times in which he grew and governed.  

In Abe, Reynolds situates Lincoln in 19th century culture and, in the preface explains that, “The current book reveals that Lincoln, far from distanced from his time, was thoroughly immersed in it. When he entered the presidency, he was neither inexperienced nor unprepared. To the contrary, he redefined democracy precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions — from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.”

Even for Reynolds, whose research and writing center on 19th century cultural history, the story of our 16th president held revelations.

“One of my great surprises in working on the book was the discovery of how close he was to African Americans,” Reynolds told The Graduate Center. “I show in Abe that although he kept up a moderate front publicly on racial issues in order to calm national tensions, he earned the respect and affection of many Black people he met with, including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Delany, each of whom testified to his complete lack of prejudice.”

Another surprise, Reynolds says, was discovering how much Lincoln “loved literature, especially poetry. Though he had less than one year of schooling, he could recite long poems from memory. On April 9, 1865, the day Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, those around Lincoln wanted to celebrate the North’s victory, but the reflective Lincoln, haunted about the heavy human toll of the Civil War, talked instead about passages on mortality by Shakespeare and Longfellow.”

Reynolds describes a politician acutely aware of the power of image, especially that of “Honest Old Abe,” which proved effective as a campaign tool even if it was a description he did not especially like. Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnick observed that, “Even readers long marinated in the Lincoln literature will find revelation in the way Abe re-situates familiar episodes.” 

Published last month, Abe has been lauded by media from O: The Oprah Magazinewhich included it among its best books, to The Wall St. Journal where historian Gordon S. Wood called Reynolds’ book unique, even among the thousands of books written about Abraham Lincoln. Reynolds, Wood said, “has written a marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historical fullness.” 

The New York Times review said, “This Lincoln portrait … goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man: his tastes, likes, dislikes, the quality of his thinking, the evolution of his ideas — all shaped and molded by the society around him.” 

As our presidential election unfolds amidst a pandemic that has glaringly exposed the deep racial and economic inequalities of our time, The Graduate Center asked Reynolds how Lincoln’s leadership relates to today. 

“As politically divided as we are today, Lincoln’s America was far more divided than ours,” Reynolds said. “Lincoln presided over a grueling civil war in which 750,000 Americans died — more American deaths than in all other wars combined. Throughout the bloody ordeal, Lincoln did everything he could to establish national unity. In my biography of him, I show that he tapped into many aspects of culture — music, popular humor, the theater, national holidays, and religion — as a means of bringing Americans together. He did not pander to a base. His phrase ‘malice toward none, charity to all’ extended to all Americans. Although he was showered with abuse by political opponents, he kept his eye steadily on pursuing the war against slavery and injustice.” 

Reynolds is the author or editor of 16 earlier books, most recently Lincoln’s Selected Writings and Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. He is the recipient of many honors for his writings, including the Bancroft Prize and the Ambassador Book Award for Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. He has been interviewed extensively on radio and television and is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books.

In Conversation with Professor David S. Reynolds

Reynolds spoke about Abe with Distinguished Professor James Oakes (History) on October 13 as part of The Graduate Center’s public programs. The event was co-hosted by The Leon Levy Center for BiographyWatch a video of the event

Accolades for Abe
Since this story was published, Abe has earned a number of accolades, including the 2020 book award of the Abraham Lincoln Institute and the 2021 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College and the the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The Wall Street Journal called Abe one of the Ten Best Books of the Year, and it was named as a Best Book of 2020 by the Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews.