Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times

“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 . . . wonderful.”

—Gordon Wood, Wall Street Journal

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.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review 

“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.”

–—–Kirkus, starred review

“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

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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.