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.
David Reynolds’s ambitious biography...illuminates aspects of Lincoln’s significance that elude more conventional biographers. There are perils in this kind of study, and Abe does not escape all of them, especially when it draws strained connections between Lincoln and his cultural surroundings. But Reynolds resists the larger and more damaging temptation to render his subject as the sum of his influences. Reynolds’s Lincoln does not simply reflect his times; he creates them as well ... Writing a comprehensive cultural biography of Lincoln is a large task on its own, but by shifting at times out of culture and into politics, Reynolds has accomplished a good deal more ... The book is especially good on Lincoln’s early backwoods years in Kentucky, Indiana, and finally Illinois ... Covering the rest of Lincoln’s life, Reynolds is prone to informative digressions into larger cultural backgrounds and significances, though his erudition occasionally gets the better of him ... Reynolds also convincingly roots Lincoln’s alternative antislavery politics in his certitude that the abolitionists’ high-minded strategy of moral suasion would stir up trouble but never break the slaveholders’ power ... Abe helps show that the supposedly urgent issue of Lincoln’s racism is more worked up than it is urgent, if indeed it is really an issue at all ... as David Reynolds’s brilliant cultural history reminds us, destroying slavery and saving American democracy had grown from Lincoln’s strategy, not John Brown’s.