Tuesday, February 3, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

February has arrived, so the publishers have pulled out all the stops with the Lincoln and Lincoln-related titles. Among the many new books this week, here are a few of the bigger titles.

Releasing in January

Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction by Allen C. Guelzo (Oxford University Press, US, 2009, paperback, 160 pages)

I found conflicting release dates for this book, so I've waited to write about it until this week. Among the recent spate of Lincoln biographies released have been three short biographies for adults by highly respected authors: this one by Guelzo and two released in December, one of comparable length by former senator George McGovern and an astounding one, if only for its length of only 96 pages, by James McPherson. For decades, it has been assumed that it was impossible to write a solid biography of Lincoln in around 250 pages or less. (In fact, for many years, it seemed that it was impossible to write a good biography in one volume, given prominent multi-volume biographies by writers like Carl Sandburg.) In 2002, Harvard professor William Gienapp released Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America, a concise 256 pages long, that was very well regarded by scholars and reviewers. (Personally, I was pretty underwhelmed by the effort, which seemed pretty thin to me.)

Now we have three prominent attempts to write a truly brief, but erudite, biography of Lincoln. Of these, this seems to me the most likely to be successful. McPherson and McGovern are first-time Lincoln authors, despite McPherson's career as a Civil War scholar. On the other hand, Guelzo has written an excellent full one-volume biography of Lincoln already -- Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President. Since that book, Guelzo has focused exclusively on Lincoln with an excellent book on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, another on the Lincoln-Douglas debates and a new book on Lincoln's philosophy. If a good short biography of Lincoln is possible, Guelzo seems up to the task.

On February 3

Lincoln's Men: The President and His Private Secretaries by Daniel Mark Epstein (Collins, 2009, hardcover, 272 pages)

Daniel Epstein now offers his third Lincoln book in the last four years -- a sign of the pace this popular author maintains. All of his Lincoln books consider specific relationships of Lincoln -- the first was a parallel biography of someone who Lincoln probably never met, Walt Whitman; the second was a biography of the marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. In this book (not to be confused with a previous Lincoln's Men by William C. Davis about Lincoln's relationship with the Union soldiers) Epstein traces the relationship Lincoln had with his personal secretaries in the White House.

It is difficult to overstate the depth of Lincoln's relationship with his secretaries, particularly John Nicolay and John Hay. They slept in the White House and were virtually always in the executive office; they acted as gatekeepers to Lincoln's office, they handled Lincoln's correspondence, and sometimes they even carried out missions to serve as Lincoln's eyes and ears outside the White House. They wrote on Lincoln's behalf, sometimes in his name, sometimes in anonymous articles for Union newspapers. Years after Lincoln's death, these two men would co-write a 10-volume biography of Lincoln that focused largely on his presidential years.

This book focuses on Nicolay and Hay, although it appears to also have significant material about William Stoddard, an assistant secretary who joined the team midway through the administration. Having glanced at Epstein's previous books, it will likely be a fluid narrative of these relationships. I can only hope that it does this too often overlooked topic justice.

1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelen Flood (Simon & Schuster, 2009, hardcover, 544 pages)

Flood, whose most recent book was on the relationship between Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, considers the tumultuous year of 1864 for Lincoln. At the beginning of the year, Lincoln was under tremendous pressure not to run for reelection; by the middle of the year, it seemed obvious that the Union effort was bogged down and casualty rates were growing at an alarming rate, leading even Lincoln himself to think that he would lose the fall election and the Union would perish. By year's end, or course, Lincoln has been overwhelmingly reelected and the Confederacy appears crippled.

In some ways, this seems like David McCullough's recent book 1776, which attempted to show the up-and-down fortunes of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. And, like McCullough, Flood is a strong writer who weaves his characters into a generally gripping tale. So this should be a best-selling history book. Unlike that tale, Lincoln's life is more tragic than the revolution, by the end of 1864, Lincoln's assassination is less than four months away, which I'm sure tempers Flood's retelling of the year's dramatic events.

I have mixed feelings about this book based on previous books by Flood that I've read. His Lee: The Last Years is a gripping account of Robert E. Lee's brief post-war career. But Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War was only okay -- solid narrative history, but I'm not sure Flood really adequately developed the promise of his subtitle; in fairness, it could have been titled "Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Saved Sherman's Postwar Reputation and Career," but I don't really buy that the friendship won the war from Flood's book.

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