Happy birthday, Abe! In honor of the upcoming bicentennial of our 16th president on February 12, the U.S. Mint is redesigning the Lincoln penny; the postal service is issuing four new commemorative stamps; and Lincoln experts everywhere are bursting into print, with 40-something recent or forthcoming volumes proving that there is always something more, and even something new, to be written about this iconic American.
Fascination with the lanky statesman stems as much from the complexities of his character as from the trajectory of his life, says noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson. The limited evidence about aspects of his private life and thought "opens up all sorts of possibilities for biographers, historians, and psychologists to probe his inner essence," McPherson says. And because every era asks different questions, there will always be new perspectives and new ways of understanding Lincoln's impact.
Perhaps that's truer than ever this coming year, which will see the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, a devout Lincoln fan who, coincidentally, was recently photographed carrying a copy of Fred Kaplan's just published tome, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer.
Herewith, a sampling of new and notable Lincoln books:
The Portable Abraham Lincoln, edited by Andrew Delbanco ($18): As selected and edited by Columbia University professor Delbanco, this compendium of Lincoln's speeches (including those at Gettysburg and the first and second inaugural addresses), debates (as in Lincoln-Douglas), and letters reminds us that Lincoln was also one of the nation's most distinctive writers and eloquent rhetoricians. Images of many of these original documents can be found in a companion volume to a forthcoming Library of Congress exhibition, In Lincoln's Hand: His Original Manuscripts (Bantam, $35).
How Lincoln developed that genius for language is the subject of Kaplan's Biography of a Writer ($28). Tracing the sources of Lincoln's style as both writer and thinker from his earliest reading primers to his lifelong passion for Shakespeare and the Bible, Kaplan shows that despite sketchy schooling and a severely limited number of texts available on the hardscrabble frontier, Lincoln worked with dogged eagerness to absorb (and often memorize) everything that came his way. For a complete view of Lincoln's life, at 2,000 pages, the two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame ($125) might be as encyclopedic as it is thorough. No less impressive an achievement is Ronald C. White Jr.'s comprehensive one-volume A. Lincoln: A Biography, which weighs in at a mere 750 pages.
Two other books provide fresh insights on very specific aspects of Lincoln's presidency. In Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, McPherson views Lincoln's presidency through the prism and the crucible of his military leadership. Though unschooled in war tactics, Lincoln ultimately proved a masterful strategist whose constancy preserved the Union. (Tip: For those seeking a quick refresher course on Lincoln's life, look for McPherson's Abraham Lincoln, just published by Oxford University Press as part of its aptly named "Brief Biography" series.)
In Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860 - 1861, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer (who is also cochairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Committee) looks at the interim period between Lincoln's election and his inauguration. Holzer also has edited The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy From 1860 to Now (Library of America, $40), a wide-ranging collection that includes the views of everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Leo Tolstoy to—yes—President-elect Barack Obama.