Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Herbert Donald, Dean of Lincoln Historians, Passes Away

News is out this morning about the death late Sunday of David Herbert Donald, American historian who wrote several important works about Abraham Lincoln, including the best one-volume biography, Lincoln.   The two-time Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, whose writings extended beyond far beyond Lincoln was 88 years old.  After studying under noted Lincoln scholar James Randall at the University of Illinois in the 1940s, Donald eventually became a named professor at Harvard University.

Obituary from The Washington Post can be found here and from The Gray Lady here.  An appreciation from Brian Dirck at A. Lincoln Blog was also posted early this morning.  Another touching appreciation from one of his former graduate students, now a professor at McGill University is here.

Donald was a premiere historian, mixing detailed and extensive research with a clear writing style, and his work was at the same time accessible and important.  His work focused on Lincoln and his contemporaries, though his interests spread throughout the 19th century.  His most famous works were biographies.  In addition to the classic Lincoln biography, Donald wrote a two-volume biography of noted abolitionist senator Charles Sumner (the first of which won the Pulitzer).  His first book -- his doctoral dissertation -- was a seminal biography of Lincoln's law partner and biographer William Herndon.

The Herndon biography, Lincoln's Herndon, published in 1948, is a critical book in the history of Lincoln scholarship.  Aside from being the best scholarly biography of Herndon (then and still today), Donald wrote it at a time when Herndon's reputation was taking a beating from historians.  He was seen as careless, and his extensive range of interviews (in person and by letter) with those who knew the young Lincoln were thought to be filled with errors -- not just errors of memory, but significant errors in Herndon's collection process.  Herndon showed that Herndon was not a drunken dope, but a quasi-intellectual (not of the first order, but sincere) who corresponded with leading intellectuals of the day; he also served as mayor of Springfield in the 1850s.  He also defended Herndon's research into Lincoln's youth, which has grown now into a resurgence in using Herndon's sources (greatly assisted by the careful editing and publication of Herndon's Informants, a collection of all the source material by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis).

Late in his career, Donald advocated for another rehabilitation in the world of Lincoln scholarship.  During interviews after Lincoln was published in 1995, Donald spoke movingly of his pity for the way Mary Lincoln is often viewed.  At times, he even said that he felt sorry for her and the position she found herself in, especially during Lincoln's presidential years.  While Donald did not pursue this in a specific book, other historians are taking up his challenge.  One senses that we are in the midst of a huge swing in thinking about Mary Lincoln.  While the credit for this extends beyond Donald, his rather emotional speaking on the topic probably had an impact.  For years, when Donald spoke, the community of Lincoln scholars listened.

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