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“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. . . . A marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historical fullness. . . . 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 . . . Where did the sympathy and compassion expressed in [Lincoln’s] Second Inaugural—’With malice toward none; with charity for all’—come from? This big, wonderful book provides the richest cultural context to explain that, and everything else, about Lincoln.”
“David S. Reynolds’s Lincoln is an updated Abe, fully woke and nicely radical. Indeed, Reynolds, the author of first-rate biographies of Walt Whitman and John Brown, makes much of Lincoln’s wonderfully named and often forgotten Wide Awakes—legions of young pro-Lincoln “b’hoys,” whose resolve and aggression far exceeded that of Bernie Sanders’s army…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.“
“A prodigious and lucidly rendered exposition of the character and thought of the 16th president as gleaned through the prism of the cultural and social forces swirling through America during his lifetime…This Lincoln portrait goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man: his tastes, likes, dislikes, the quality of his thinking, the evolution of his ideas — all shaped and molded by the society around him.”
–-Robert W. Merry, New York Times Book Review
“Do we need another book about Abraham Lincoln when there have been about 16,000 so far? Yes, we need to read Reynolds’ Abe. Neither hagiography nor take-down, Abe refutes the traditional view of Lincoln as the “quintessential self-made man.” Reynolds eloquently describes how Lincoln’s character was shaped by the culture of antebellum America and recovers bits of popular cultural history that combined to allow him to operate in different registers.“
“Magisterial and authoritative… Reynolds provides a portrait rich in texture and context, not only of Lincoln but of the America he inhabited and helped redefine. The result is a must-read addition to the canon of Lincoln biographies.”
“Reynolds is one of our most significant historians, and he is up to the enormous task of creating a cultural biography of the man who would become America’s most recognizable president. A fine cultural history and biography that is accessible to all readers… consistently fun to read.”
“Reynolds’ magisterial biography focuses on the dozens of different influences and experiences that fortuitously coalesced to turn Lincoln into the icon he’s become….Even readers who think they know Lincoln’s life deeply will find new insights here. This is sure to win a wide audience.”
— Booklist (starred review)
“This luminous biography reimagines the life and times of our greatest president through the prism of his cultural influences and teems with insights about Lincoln’s views on abolition, equality, and these disunited states.”
–“The Twenty Best Books of the Fall So Far,” O. The Oprah Magazine
“David Reynolds’ splendid biography is chock full of fresh information and insights about Lincoln ….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, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
“Abraham Lincoln is the central figure of the American story, a flawed but noble man who insisted against all odds that the national experiment in liberty must go on in spite of all. In this wonderful new biography, David Reynolds brings the giant to life once more, reminding us of the limitations and the possibilities of politics in a fallen world.
–Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“ This is an Abraham Lincoln at once familiar and entirely new, a man who was very much the product of his own cultural moment. No one but Reynolds could have written a book this good.”
—James Oakes, author of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States
“Monumental…Drawing on Reynolds’s unequaled knowledge and humane understanding, Abe is a brilliant portrait of the man and of the country he saved.”
-Edward L. Ayers, winner of the Lincoln Prize
“In this compelling, thought-provoking life of the Great Emancipator, David Reynolds reminds us that a prerequisite for leadership in a democracy is an ability to tap the zeitgeist and turn it to decisive effect, as Lincoln preeminently did.”
-H. W. Brands, best-selling historian and biographer
About the Book
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.