Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book Review: Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President

Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President
by Edward Steers Jr.
(University Press of Kentucky, 2007), hardcover, 288 pages

With so many books and articles written about Abraham Lincoln over the last 150 years, and with the interest in Lincoln being so perpetually strong, it is inevitable that a number of mistaken stories have seeped into several biographies. "Mistaken," of course, is often a polite term. Alongside a number of legends that have grown over the decades through incorrect remembrances and exaggerations are a number of outright fabrications.

Edward Steers Jr., a Lincoln historian most known for his research into the Lincoln assassination, wades into several of these stories in Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President. In this book, Steers focuses on fourteen such stories, considering how they are often told, where they originated, and what credence, if any, they should be given.

These stories touch on all time periods of Lincoln's life. Many, such as questions about Lincoln's paternity and his New Salem romance with Anne Rutledge, are well known. Others, like the person of Andrew Potter, who figures prominently in many of the recent conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, are likely unknown by all except the most voracious students of Lincoln stories.

The opening chapter, focusing on the log cabin enshrined at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Memorial in Kentucky, shows the pattern of Steers' analysis. He first presents the most common form of a legendary story -- in this case, the veneration of this cabin. Then he carefully tells the history of the legend, which in the case of the birthplace cabin begins in 1895 (over 80 years after Lincoln's birth) with an entrepreneur named Alfred Dennett, who thought that he could turn Lincoln's birthplace into a profitable tourist attraction. The story of Dennett's efforts, which are stranger than fiction, is well told by Steers, who then offers testimony by those who have defended the cabin as being authentic and by those who have challenged those claims. Finally, Steers offers his conclusion, which is that the cabin is a fake.

Steers is an engaging author. He tells the stories well, with humor and a human touch. He then proves to be a fair arbiter, weighing the evidence and testimony before offering his conclusions. Several of the chapters are exceptionally well done, including the four legends he recounts regarding the assassination: the previously mention Andrew Potter saga, the involvement of Dr. Samuel Mudd in the conspiracy, the "missing" pages of Booth's diary, and questions surrounding the man who held Booth's horse outside Ford's Theatre that fateful night.

Occasionally, Steers is a bit quick to form an either/or judgment about one of the legends, leaving out slightly more complex options, especially around the recent furor of the claims that Lincoln was gay. These are generally harmless -- and I might add, I almost always agree fully with Steers' conclusions.

However, the chapter on Lincoln's paternity, in which Steers considers claims that Thomas Lincoln was not really Abraham Lincoln's biological father, omits one significant factor in that controversy, which explains its persistence if not its veracity -- Lincoln himself wondered whether he, or his mother, was an illegitimate child. The reasons for this seem a little uncharitable -- Lincoln felt that he was nothing like his father, especially intellectually, and so looked for another genetic source for his intelligence on both sides of his family tree -- but they are likely the reason that William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and greatest early biographer, pursued the question. While Steers rightly believes that the illegitimacy stories are farfetched, he fails to name their key source -- Lincoln himself -- which will always be enough to lead some to investigate these claims.

On the whole, though, Lincoln Legends is a satisfying volume, helping readers sort out fact from fiction in Lincoln biography. It is clear and efficient, brimming with entertaining anecdotes. For those unfamiliar with Steers' other work -- including Blood on the Moon, which is by far the best single book on Lincoln's assassination -- this book features the stamp of approval from Lincoln scholar de jure Harold Holzer, who provides the introduction. These readers will discover what Holzer and others know, that Steers is a first-rate historian whose considered views demand attention.

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