“David Reynolds’ splendid biography is chock full of fresh information and insights about Lincoln that disprove the adage that nothing new can be said about this iconic American. Focusing on the cultural forces that shaped Lincoln and his contemporaries, Reynolds portrays the gathering storm of sectional conflict that erupted into a war over slavery and disunion in which Lincoln’s commitment to freedom and racial justice was grounded in moral commitment as well as political and military exigencies. A work of literary distinction as well as sound scholarship, this biography will take its place as a classic in Lincoln studies.”
–James M. McPherson, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
To be published by Penguin, September 29, 2020
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From one of the great living historians of 19th century America, a revelatory and enthralling new biography of Lincoln, many years in the making, that embeds him deeply in his tumultuous age.
David S. Reynolds, author of the Bancroft-prize-winning cultural biography of Walt Whitman and many other iconic works of 19th century American history, understands the currents in which Abraham Lincoln swam as well as anyone alive. His magisterial biography Abe is the product of a breathtaking full-body immersion into the riotous tumult of American life in the decades before the Civil War.
It was a country growing up and being pulled apart at the same time, with a democratic popular culture that, reflecting the country’s contradictions, oscillated between the sentimental and the grotesque. Lincoln’s lineage was considered auspicious by Emerson, Whitman and others who prophesied that it would be a new man from the West who would emerge to balance North and South. From New England Puritan stock on his father’s side and Virginia Cavalier gentry on his mother’s, Lincoln was linked by blood to the central conflict of the age. An enduring theme of his life, Reynolds shows, was his genius for striking a balance between opposing forces.
Reynolds’s Lincoln is not the self-raised child of legend; his father is much more influential and less of a flop than the legend has it. What Lincoln lacked in formal schooling he made up for in an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement; Reynolds leads us through the ad hoc course of study that stocked his mind, from childhood to his years as a lawyer. But there are many kinds of education, and Lincoln’s talent for wrestling, tall tales, and bawdy jokes made him as popular with his peers as his appetite for poetry and Shakespeare and prodigious gifts for memorization set him apart from them.
No one can entirely transcend the limitations of their time, and Lincoln was no exception. But what emerges from Reynolds’s masterful reckoning is a sense of a man who at each stage in his life managed to arrive at a broader view of things than all but his most enlightened peers. As a politician, he moved too slowly for some, and too swiftly for many more, but he always pushed hard toward justice while keeping the whole nation in mind. Abe culminates, of course, in the Civil War, the defining test of Lincoln and his beloved country. Reynolds shows us convincingly the extraordinary range of cultural artifacts Lincoln drew from as he shaped a vision of true union, transforming, in King’s words, “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Abraham Lincoln did not come out of nowhere. Never have his cultural influences been more sharply limned than by David S. Reynolds here. But if he was shaped by his times, he also managed at his life’s fateful hour to shape them to an extent few could have foreseen. Ultimately, this is the great drama that astonishes us still, and that Abe brings to fresh and vivid life. The measure of that life, in all its democratic fullness, will always be part of our American education.