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David Madden Review of Six Lincoln Books

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REVIEW OF SIX BOOKS ABOUT LINCOLN

By David Madden

 

*Daniel Mark Epstein, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, $28
*Roy Morris, Jr., The Long Pursuit, $24.95
*Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, Lincoln and Douglass, $26.95

*James F. Simon, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, $15, paperback.
*Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, $26
*Daniel Mark Epstein, Whitman and Lincoln: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, $24.95

 

After you have read the 4,000 or so books on Lincoln published since 1865, you may want to open the latest 60 or so published this year. Or you might opt to skip the 4,000 for the time being and go straight to the bookstore.

Books on Lincoln are more imaginative than they used to be, note The Bicentennial's copy of 100 Essential Lincoln Books. Prior to 1990, books on Lincoln took mostly predictable approaches.  Now, as we come closer and closer to the bicentennial of his birth, the more creative and illuminating approach is to look at him alongside or through the eyes of those close to him, beginning with his wife Mary, moving on to Stephen Douglas, Chief Supreme Court Justice Taney, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, even Mary Surratt, accomplice to his assassin.

Daniel Mark Epstein is the author of seven books of poetry, three plays, translations of Roman and Greek plays, and four works of nonfiction, including Lincoln and Whitman, the subtitle of which reflects the concept of all six of the books I am reviewing here: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington.

Epstein published another book this year, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, which he might just as well have called Abe and Mary: Parallel Lives in Antebellum Springfield and Civil War Washington, because in all the many accounts of their marriage, Mary’s relentless complaint, verging on psychosis toward the end, was that their lives were too often parallel, not often enough conjunctive. Theirs is a familiar story in the American historical consciousness.

Epstein’s claim is threefold, that his is the first full-length study of that marriage and that the true story has never been fully told, and that it benefits from some “riveting new information.” He won’t get a challenge to those claims from me, but even if he exaggerates, there is another, perhaps greater, aspect that brings distinction to this dual biography—it is conceived by and imbued with the sensibility of a poet-playwright. Let that distinction stand as my recommendation.

The courtship years of Abe and Mary provide a transition to Roy Morris’ The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, because Abe and Stephen struggled for the heart of Mary Todd, and that provided an unbroken background for the nearly three decades of stirring, brilliant debates. One may wonder whether either adversary would have achieved greater things had Mary accepted Stephen’s rumored marriage proposal decades earlier.

Weakened by political defeat in his long effort to win the presidency and by physical complaints that would kill him within a few months, the “Little Giant” Douglas was one of the first to meet with the awkward giant victor. “In God’s name, act the patriot and save our children a country to live in.” Lincoln did just that, the country being one very different from the one Douglas as president would have left us. Epstein’s book implies that without the famous debates, Lincoln may never have reached the White House.

After assuring his old rival of his personal support, Douglas left, feeling their meeting had been “peculiarly pleasant.” “Later, Lincoln told another visitor, a little wistfully, ‘What a noble man Douglas is.’”

Morris’s 250 page account, the style of which is reader friendly, may have wider appeal than Allen C. Guelzo’s 380 page work, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, which also appeared this year.

Morris’s Lincoln-Douglas dramatic narrative overlaps very effectively with James F. Simon’s Lincoln-Taney study. “For most of his speech assailing the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln spoke of Chief Justice Taney and his defender, Senator Douglas, as if they were one person.”

As Generals, Confederate and Union, clashed by day on battlefields, Lincoln was fighting a Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Wilderness, Petersburg of his own, defeats and victories. Among those with the greatest consequence was the battle with Chief Justice Taney over “slavery, secession, and the President’s war powers.” Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney by James F. Simon, who has written six books on the Supreme Court’s journey from the Jefferson and Marshall era to the Nixon era, is probably one of the most necessary and enlightening Lincoln studies so far in this Lincoln Bicentennial, joining eight other recent distinguished works in the Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library.

Father and son, Stephen and Paul Kendrick, having published a narrative of the struggles of the free blacks of Boston, now turn to the epic stories of Douglass and Lincoln, making the claim that may be applied to all six books reviewed here, that “our appreciation of Lincoln is deepened when his life is paired with that of Douglass.” And through “the prism” of Frederick Douglass’s life, especially during the war, Lincoln’s uncertainties and hesitations about when and how to employ black troops and to issue the Emancipation Proclamation are better understood in all their conflicting complexities.

Even though they met only three times in person, their paths crossed repeatedly in print, as they read each others’ speeches, letters, and other writings, along with the rest of the nation. Lincoln saw the ugly face of slavery in New Orleans when he was a nineteen-year-old on a flatboat; seeing the face of a famous and eloquent, fiery and persuasive ex-slave in the White House must have been a uniquely moving and instructive experience. The Kendricks, father and son, want us to share that experience in this second book on Douglass and Lincoln to appear this year, subtitled “How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union.”

Some readers may be glad to recall similar meetings between Reverend Martin Luther King and the reluctant civil rights president from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, in the White House in the Sixties, during the Civil War Centennial. One of those readers might very well be a writer inspired to look at the parallel lives of King and Johnson, or King and J. Edgar Hoover.

There may have been more than two Marys in Lincoln’s life, but both his wife and his assassin’s accomplice are more than too much. Kate Clifford Larson makes the case for Mary Surratt—rather against her, in a climate that warms to Mrs. Surratt, like Doctor Mudd, as innocent. An obscure woman helped a celebrated actor kill a celebrated President.

The evidence proves, concludes Larson, that in meetings with the conspirators in her boarding house, Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt “kept the nest that hatched the egg,” and for that she became the first woman ever to be executed by the federal government of the United States. If some few doubt her guilt, four of the grisliest photographs of the war leave no doubt that she, widow and mother, standing and dropping beside four accomplices, was executed. Historian Larson is also the author of book about a totally different Civil War woman, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.

Coming back to that prolific poet-playwright biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, we are fortunate at long last in having a full counterpoint rendering of the lives of two very different men, politician and poet, Lincoln and Whitman. But, as Epstein so brilliantly expresses it, both were visionaries. Both were animated in their thoughts and actions by the spirit of democracy and a love of common men and women, Lincoln out of frontier experiences, Whitman out of experiences in America’s largest city.

Picture Lincoln reading Leaves of Grass as Whitman was reading Lincoln’s speeches. The effect of Lincoln on Whitman is in the poems. Few folks know, however, that Lincoln “commended the new poet’s verses for their virility, freshness, unconventional sentiments, and unique forms of expression.” Herndon, his law partner, writes that “Time and again, when Lincoln came in, or was leaving, he would pick” up Leaves of Grass, “as if to glance at it for only a moment, but instead he would often settle down in a chair and never stop reading aloud such verses or pages as he fancied.”

Epstein shows how the lives of these two iconic American figures converged much more on the page at major turning points in their lives than in actual encounters, especially Whitman as he wrote one of the greatest elegies in the English language, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” He had already written privately in his war-years notebooks and spoken publicly about Lincoln, who had been reading Whitman’s vision of America when he expressed his own in his “House Divided” speech.

Whitman was there in Washington during the war as wound-dresser and often greeted Lincoln as they passed in the street. We know that the war changed both men, but Epstein’s sensitive book renders the ways each man’s words and behavior changed the other.

Like Mary Lincoln’s, Stephen Douglas’s, Chief Justice Taney’s, Frederick Douglass’s, Mary Surratt’s, and Walt Whitman’s, the life of the reader who commits to reading all six books will parallel Lincoln’s, from six different perspectives, coming away at last with a kind of cubistic portrait in this bicentennial time of rediscovery.

 

David Madden is chair of Louisiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and author of Sharpshooter, a novel of the Civil War.