Among the many books celebrating the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln, these three offer something more personal, a look at the world through Lincoln’s eyes: what he read, how he translated his thoughts into words and what he saw in the various places he lived and worked.
A beautiful mind
Biographer and university professor Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer is a full-bodied volume that should interest readers captivated by the Lincoln who expressed himself so movingly with pen in hand. Kaplan’s scope is essentially biographical, yet his main intent is to trace those influences that shaped Lincoln’s writing along the way—his style, his logic, his rational tone, his restraint, his noted brevity, his humor and his political sensibilities. Examples are plentiful and highly pertinent, and they’re all rooted in a narrative that fully details the personal and professional events that evinced their writing. Imbued with scholarly rigor, yet readably crafted, Kaplan’s study gives us a Lincoln who absorbed Shakespeare and Burns in the early going, then transformed his writing style from somewhat ponderous to both “honest and particularized . . . its persuasiveness determined by its adherence to the linguistic ground rules of a moral lexicon.” And, yes, this was the book seen tucked under Barack Obama’s arm shortly after his election last November.
Compiled under the editorship of Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf Shenk, In Lincoln’s Hand: His Original Manuscripts with Commentary by Distinguished Americans is a tie-in to a special Library of Congress exhibition, “With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition,” which features around 2,000 Lincoln documents, many of which have not been seen previously by the public. This volume reproduces nearly four dozen of the Lincoln writings in the author’s original hand and provides a printed transcription of each. It then presents commentary on each piece from individuals representing a broad spectrum of Americans, including former presidents, noted politicians, historians and also figures from the worlds of arts and letters and show business. The Lincoln excerpts are fascinating, of course—they derive from formal speeches, official acts, internal memos, letters, unsent missives, etc.—but it’s the contemporary responses that help add understanding and perspective to Lincoln’s words.
Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. perceptively amplifies the key phrases in Lincoln’s second inaugural address (“With malice toward none . . .”); comic Conan O’Brien gives us a serious Lincolnian chuckle in assessing a brief message from the president to Gen. Grant (“[H]e wrote his own material”); and current Illinois senior Sen. Richard J. Durbin offers some nuanced historical feedback on the famous “House Divided” speech. There are even surprises here, such as former President Jimmy Carter’s rather provocative—even subtly churlish—assessment of a brief Lincoln essay on the notion of God’s will as it relates to the Civil War. Other contributors muse about Lincoln’s subtle turns of phrase or his occasional pointed irony. The text is also studded with marvelous archival photos that relate to the people and events that are the subject matter of the Lincoln writings.
Land of Lincoln
Through the Eyes of Lincoln: A Modern Photographic Journey is anchored by veteran Kentucky journalist Ron Elliott’s informative text, which provides a historical, time-and-place sensitivity to Lincoln’s various physical worlds, from the Bluegrass State of his birth, to his Indiana boyhood, through the Illinois years, and finally to the Washington, D.C., of the Great Emancipator’s final crucible. There are occasional archival photos of those places (and persons) made famous via Lincoln’s relationship to them, but what provides this book with a welcome, value-added counterpoint are John W. Snell’s many original photographs of the same sites as they are today. Snell’s work is clear and crisp and spans nicely from a scenic view of Knob Creek (Indiana), where the young Abe might’ve skipped stones, to a solemn shot of an illuminated Lincoln Memorial at nighttime, where Daniel C. French’s timeless sculpture keeps steady watch. The book has some niggling typos scattered within it—but, of course, they don’t detract at all from the photos.