Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book Review: ABRAHAM LINCOLN, A LIFE, VOLUME 1 by Michael Burlingame (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009)

Burlingame's 2,000-page behemoth of a bio of the 16th President -- the first volume of which I plowed through during much of my "free time" at Daytona Beach -- is likely to be the "standard" Lincoln life survey for the rest of the 21st century, at least. It could have been as dry as the dust on the top of Lincoln's top hat, but Burlingame's writing style goes down relatively smoothly and easily. Burlingame is especially good at detailing Lincoln's gradual development as a political figure. A "slasher-gaff ideologue" in his younger days, Lincoln had matured into a wiser, deeper statesman by the time he challenged Stephen Douglas in the famous debates. Burlingame attributes this to a "midlife crisis" that forced Lincoln, on the heels of his brief and relatively obscure career as a Congressman, to reexamine his values and approaches. Curiously, however, most of the "midlife crisis" chapter is devoted to the nuts and bolts of Lincoln's law practice. Was there some "central event" that keyed Lincoln's maturation? Burlingame doesn't really identify one, which leads me to believe that the "midlife crisis" argument was just a handy way of describing something that can't be described in a simple fashion. Perhaps Lincoln's self-education -- one of the more dramatic stories of self-improvement in American, if not world, history -- simply took time to reach its fully mature state.
The one real drawback of this magisterial work is its cheap binding. I had to handle Volume 1 very carefully in spite of the fact that I was among the first to check out Stevenson University's copy. Volume 2 looks to be in even shakier shape, and I haven't even cracked the covers yet. Thankfully, the entire book is available in Kindle format for those who don't want to take a chance on binding-busting.

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