Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Book Reviews

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have weekend book sections with Abraham Lincoln features today. The Post's is more extensive, featuring two reviews and then an overview of recent Lincoln books, while the Times has a lengthy piece on recent books by longtime contributor William Safire.

The Post reviews are fairly straightforward, featuring yet another positive review of Ronald White's A. Lincoln. Although I was not a fan of White's book on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, I am quickly becoming convinced from the number of glowing reviews that this is likely a significant new biography. Also today there is a review of a new biography of Mrs. Lincoln, in which the reviewer is curiously ambivalent about whether Mary Lincoln merits an individual biography.

The overviews of recent biography in both papers are intriguing for their tones, including the fact that both writers feel compelled to regurgitate the long-time publishing joke about how a book on 'Lincoln's doctor's dog' would be an instant best-seller.

Setting this aside, both seem to take the opposite approach on the subject: in the Post, Fred Kaplan seem so repulsed by the number and length of Lincoln books that I half expect him to propose book-burning as a solution. This is odd given that Kaplan himself is the author of a recent book on Lincoln (Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer). Of course, he suggests that authors should limit themselves to one book only on Abraham Lincoln, which is a staggeringly short-sighted view. I gather that Kaplan will limit himself to only one book (which is his right), but I hesitate to think of others, like the prolific and enthusiastic Harold Holzer or the longtime student of Lincoln David Herbert Donald or the superstar of the next generation Douglas Wilson -- all of whom have published several significant books on Lincoln. And given his rather blase rebuttal of Michael Burlingame's recent multi-volume Lincoln biography (the first significant multi-volume work on Lincoln in decades, fitting into an older tradition of Lincoln biography) based on its length suggests that Kaplan does not really have the depth of reading in the Lincoln field to be writing generally about it. Of course, on that the editors of the Post clearly seem to disagree with me.

William Safire's lengthier piece in the Times is odd in that he seems rather eager to write his own Lincoln book to add to recent titles. Safire has a much longer introduction before he considers several important recent titles, including the aforementioned ones by White and Burlingame. He also gives attention to the new Library of America title, The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now which is certainly among the most intriguing of the bicentennial books; drawing from countless authors over almost 150 years, this volume allows one to glimpse the evolution of Lincoln's legacy. After this, though, Safire enters into an extended commentary where he suggests possible inquiries for future Lincoln books, including one that might be described as contrafactual history. As a whole, the column is interesting, but also a bit odd.

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