A cultural biography of Abraham Lincoln, following Lincoln's monumental life from cradle to grave while weaving a narrative that includes Lincoln's cultural influences and the nation-wide and regional cultural trends and moods and happenings of his day, and how Lincoln both shaped and was shaped by his America.
Some 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln—more than any other historical figure except Jesus. But there has never been one like this one by David S. Reynolds. The author, a literary scholar and historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has written a marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historical fullness ... Like any good biographer, Mr. Reynolds takes us through the important events of Lincoln’s life. But unlike previous biographers, Mr. Reynolds spends an extraordinary amount of time presenting his cultural context. In effect, his biography becomes less a narrative of Lincoln’s life than an explanation of his genius. We come to understand fully why Lincoln did what he did, and why he did it when he did it ... Because Mr. Reynolds knows so much about this forgotten culture of antebellum America—both the high and low parts of it—he is able to recover the often peculiar and evanescent incidents and conditions that influenced Lincoln’s actions and attitudes ... Using popular culture in this way, to fill out the context surrounding Lincoln, is what makes Mr. Reynolds’s biography so different and so compelling.
... a prodigious and lucidly rendered exposition of the character and thought of the 16th president ... More character study than narrative biography, this Lincoln portrait ... goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man ... At the same time, Reynolds succumbs to a pitfall in drawing conclusions about how particular Lincoln experiences influenced his later thoughts and actions when no evidence for such causal effects is discernible.
Reynolds’s Lincoln is very much an Honest Abe, but he is an updated Abe, fully woke and finely radical ... Reynolds updates Lincoln by doing what scholars do now: he makes biography secondary to the cultural history of the country. Lincoln is seen as a man whose skin bears the tattoos of his time. Cultural patterns are explicated in Abe, and Lincoln is picked up and positioned against them, taking on the coloring of his surroundings, rather like a taxidermied animal being placed in a reconstructed habitat in a nineteenth-century diorama at a natural-history museum. Instead of rising from one episode of strenuous self-making to another, he passes from one frame to the next, a man subsumed ... Reynolds’s cultural history illuminates Lincoln—and particularly his transformation from self-made lawyer into American Abe. Even readers long marinated in the Lincoln literature will find revelation in the way Abe re-situates familiar episodes ... Reynolds’s cultural frames become more arresting as Lincoln’s role grows more public; public people are always cultural objects ... As the war begins, Reynolds’s lens widens in ways that are less appealingly whimsical than in the Barnum case but still more genuinely illuminating ... Sometimes Reynolds’s kind of cultural history demands more suppleness of mind than he displays. When, for instance, he proposes a parallel between Mary Lincoln locked up in the White House and Emily Dickinson isolated in her home, in Amherst, we feel that we are in the presence of a similitude without a real shape: Emily was a Yankee poet of matchless genius, Mary a bewildered Southern woman in an unmanageable role. All they shared was being alone in a big house ... Even with Reynolds’s more compelling examples of anthropological patterns, small whitecaps of uncertainty may stir in the reader’s mind ... Throughout Abe, the terms 'culture' and 'cultural' recur with such hammering relentlessness that one wishes Reynolds’s editor had given him a thesaurus. Not having enough words means not seeing enough types ... What counts is a sense of what counts.