A history professor delivers an account of the weeks Lincoln spent traveling to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration, navigating rowdy crowds—many of them angry—as the nation slouched toward civil war and the future President developed his resolve to lead the nation through crisis.
Although Ted Widmer writes evocatively of Lincoln’s emotional departure, little of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that preceded or followed it features in his magisterial Lincoln on the Verge—a bit surprising, since the author is a former Clinton White House speechwriter. But this is not a book about politics. In a wholly original, gorgeously crafted reimagining, Mr. Widmer instead portrays Lincoln’s demanding journey as a Homeric odyssey through perilous terrain toward almost preordained immortality ... Mr. Widmer brings off his panoramic, almost mystical interpretation with riveting panache. His book is not only a historical achievement but a literary one ... The story of Lincoln’s inaugural journey has never been told in such rich detail, much less with each chapter so compellingly prefaced by an apt epigraph from The Odyssey...Mr. Widmer displays a command of the literature (both classical and American) necessary to sustain this comparison with conviction. His book succeeds as broad biography, too, looking both backward and forward to draw premonitions and parallels from the journey—as when river vistas remind the author (as they likely reminded the president-elect) of the young Lincoln’s earlier, character-molding flatboat experiences on the Ohio and Mississippi ... To say Mr. Widmer brings each setting to life would be an understatement ... offers not only dazzling accounts of the transportation and communications revolutions that propelled modernization, but a sensory portrait of the urban and rural North ... The Lincolnphile might quibble with some of Mr. Widmer’s arguments...Far more importantly, Mr. Widmer succeeds in imparting genuine drama into a story whose temporarily happy ending we already know.
... superb ... Widmer demonstrates a deft ability to relate Lincoln’s circumstances to those of others in the nation’s past ... As Lincoln had plotted his route strategically, so too does Widmer with his writing; his creative structure and new research offer compelling diversions about some of the people and history the president-elect encountered. Included are past and future presidents, as well as the slaughterhouses of Cincinnati and the nauseating corruption of Albany. Every place had someone or something distinctive, and Widmer invariably finds it ... Widmer has written a revelatory work about an important but underappreciated episode ... His book could also be on the verge—of becoming a Lincoln classic.
Widmer offers riveting descriptions of the dangers on the journey, the many and varied people involved in Lincoln's goals, the technological improvements of telegraph and railroad, and the larger historical context of the secession crisis. These all give his book resonance and insight into the man and the moment ... Whether seasoned Lincoln scholars or interested general readers, all who pick up this book will learn much by going along for the ride with Widmer.