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Six Of The Top Recent Books On Abraham Lincoln
Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
The Papers, which culminate eight years of editorial work and examine more than 50 individual cases, offer two “tours” with Lincoln around the judicial circuit, essays on his career as a lawyer and as a court official, and explanations of the structure of the Illinois and federal court systems and 19th-century pleading and practice, as well as a biographical directory, an extensive legal glossary, and a cumulative index. While such a work is not necessarily recreational reading, this collection is not for scholars only. Its large and admirable body of contextual material offers insight into Lincoln’s professional life as a busy 19th-century lawyer, while the assortment of his most important and most interesting cases—such as the famous William “Duff” Armstrong “moonlight” trial and Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County—keeps it a lively read. In all, this compendium of a formidable attorney’s practice throws light on the activities that were
uppermost for more than half of his working life.
The most original—and arguably the most astonishing—contribution from 2008 is a two-volume work, The Physical Lincoln Complete (Mt. Vernon Book Systems, 820 pages, $49.95), by Dr. John G. Sotos. Sotos, a renowned cardiologist and a medical advisor for the television show House M.D., has written the most exhaustive study on Lincoln’s health ever published, and the first attempted in 75 years. The book’s main diagnosis is that Lincoln suffered from the genetic cancer syndrome MEN2B—multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 2B. This diagnosis, Sotos shows, explains more than 50 previously unsolved mysteries about Lincoln, including the manifestations from which other observers have concluded that he suffered from clinical depression, Marfan syndrome, and stress-related physical illness.
The Physical Lincoln Complete is aimed at scholars and laypersons alike. Volume 1, The Physical Lincoln, is for general readers, telling the story of Lincoln’s medical history in nontechnical language. In the author’s words, it “takes you on a tour of [Lincoln’s] body”—his arms, legs, hands, feet, skull, joints, eyes, and heart. It also reviews the health histories of his family. The second volume, The Physical Lincoln Sourcebook, is for scholars: taking the raw information from historical sources and organizing it as a medical record. The first volume contains frequent references to the second volume, making the two essentially companionate, although they can be purchased and read separately. The Physical Lincoln Complete may sound daunting, but is so compelling, revelatory, and well-written as to be a remarkable and truly recommend able reading experience.
Another original take last year was Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Harper, 416 pages, $27.95) by Fred Kaplan, an English professor and biographer of authors, who examines his subject primarily from a literary viewpoint. Unlike the critically acclaimed 2006 book Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson, which examined Lincoln’s writing as a political instrument, Kaplan declares Lincoln to be one of the great writers of his day and second perhaps only to Thomas Jefferson as a writing president. Kaplan treads familiar ground in examining Lincoln’s reading, such as his beloved Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and the Bible, and their influences. But he undertakes an unparalleled analysis of Lincoln the creative writer, digging more widely and deeply than any of his predecessors in examining Lincoln’s writings from early notebook jottings and poems, to love letters and legal briefs, to the masterful presidential speeches and writings that are a significant part of American literature. One of the more interesting aspects of Kaplan’s exegesis is his recasting of a Lincoln speech on agricultural improvements as a free verse poem.
Kaplan’s great strength is his experience and expertise in examining literature and those who make it—he has to his credit admirable biographies of Mark Twain, Henry James and Charles Dickens. Because of this, he can go farther than any previous commentator in showing the growth and maturation of Lincoln’s literary skill and how his great talent helped to form his policies and ideas. Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer is an innovative offering in a crowded field and will become a staple for Lincoln enthusiasts and scholars.
The most anticipated contribution of 2008—and of the past 10 years at least—is another two-volume work that may prove to be the greatest biography of the 16th president ever written: Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2,024 pages, $125), embodying 10 years’ research and writing by one of the field’s most respected historians (and certainly the most indefatigable ransacker of archives). Burlingame has written and edited numerous books on Lincoln and his associates. His first such offering, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, revealed aspects of Lincoln’s life never before known or exposed. Abraham Lincoln: A Life continues this tradition with an avalanche of previously unknown information. Burlingame has scoured thousands of 19th-century newspapers; read hundreds of oral histories, unpublished letters, and journals from Lincoln’s contemporaries; and reexamined vast manuscript collections around the country long neglected by the most assiduous of his colleagues. One of the book’s many highlights is its revelation of more than 200 anonymous editorials written by Lincoln during his early political career in Illinois.