Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Month

In the past few weeks, there have been a few Lincoln-related books released. Two are new hardcovers, two are new paperback editions of previously published books. Among them are a new collection of Lincoln photographs, an study of Lincoln's use of religious language, a dual biography of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and a book on the assassination.

Lincoln, Life-Size by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. (Knopf, 2009, hardcover, 208 pages)

The Kunhardts, including the late Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., are documentary film producers and authors, who occasionally publish books related to their larger projects. This is their third Lincoln book, following Lincoln (1992), which was a companion to an ABC documentary, and this year's "Looking for Lincoln."

The thought behind this book is to take known photographs of Lincoln, including some pictures where Lincoln is only one person among many, and then to blow up Lincoln's face to life-size dimensions. It is an intriguing idea. Lincoln's face is very expressive in an odd sort of way, and there are so many images of Lincoln that the comparisons between them must be very interesting. My only concern is that some of these blown up images must be pretty blurry and grainy; otherwise, it sounds like an intriguing experiment that might offer new appreciation for Lincoln from the abundant photographs taken during his lifetime.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer by A. E. Elmore (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009, hardcover, 280 pages)

Several books have been written about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, including the recent The Gettysburg Gospel by Gabor Boritt and Gary Wills' Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg. In both of these books and others, authors have rightly commented on Lincoln's use of religious imagery and language. None, to my knowledge, has focused only on the religious language until this book by A. E. Elmore, a professor of English at Athens State University in Alabama.

Such a study is long overdue. As significant as Wills' book is, with its effort to contextualize the address within its situational context -- including his fascinating presentation of the relationship of Lincoln's words to the nascent pastoral movement in cemetery design, he only devotes only one chapter to the words of the address itself. A careful consideration of the antecedents of the words, so many of which have complex layers of meaning, can only improve appreciation of Lincoln's careful use of language.

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer (Twelve, paperback, 448 pages)

The relationship between Lincoln and Douglass, often contentious given some of Douglass' writing about Lincoln during his administration, is most often remembered for Lincoln soliciting "my good friend Douglass'" opinion of his second inaugural address. ("A sacred effort," Douglass is reported to have replied.) However, the relationship was much more complicated, partially because both Lincoln and Douglass were self-made men who were best known for their ideas.

On the other hand, this is one of three recent books that have focused on Lincoln and Douglass. The relationship is intriguing, if only that Douglass' 1876 address about Lincoln at the dedication of the Freedman's Memorial may be the most honest assessment from any of his contemporaries. But three books in the past five years? Probably overkill. Having not read any of the three, I do not know which one should be read.

"They Have Killed Papa Dead!": The Road to Ford's Theatre, Abraham Lincoln's Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance by Anthony S. Pitch (Steerforth, paperback, 560 pages)

If there are too many books about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, there are certainly too many about the Lincoln assassination. The interesting thing here is that Pitch has been a longtime Washington DC area tour guide, even appearing on C-SPAN, describing the events surrounding the assassination at their original location.

As such, I have no doubt that Pitch has an ear for the right way to tell the story, and I imagine that he has a wealth of stories to tell after his many years (given the 560 pages of the book, it appears that indeed he does have a wealth of stories). Will this book rival Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers Jr. as a must-have volume? Hard to say. It probably will be most interesting for serious students of the assassination looking for even more stories and details surrounding the tragic event.