I was dumbfounded and mumbled some half-answer. It seemed akin to asking me why people breathe.
Throughout my life, I’ve read dozens of biographies of Lincoln and scores of books about the Civil War and his role in the conflict. I’ve reviewed Lincoln books and written essays on the 16th U.S. President, and, for several years, I served on the advisory board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield
For me, the study of Lincoln is fascinating and never-ending. Yet, my friend, a well-read guy, was really confused.
One life story?
At the root of his question was the thought that each of us has one life story. So, once it’s told, there’s no need for it to be told again, right? I suspect he’s not alone in such thinking.
He’s right, sort of, if the life story is in the form of a resume. The bullet points about schooling and jobs that were on my resume in 1981 were still true a few years ago when I put together a new resume. I could have just added new bullet points from the intervening three decades.
Yet, what I actually did was prepare a much different resume, stressing my more recent work and eliminating the bullet points about schooling entirely. So, I did a new miniature life story because I had new data and different goals that I was aiming to achieve.
New information is one reason for doing a new biography of someone. This is obvious when it comes to living people still active on the world stage, such as Donald Trump.
A book about him, written in, say, 2007, would be missing a huge part of his life story. This isn’t to say the earlier book would now be useless. Not at all. In fact, it becomes an even more important — and richer — reading experience since it captures not just facts about Trump but also how he was seen before he turned American politics on its ear. It gives a look at him undistorted by the knowledge of what was to come in the future.
The need to incorporate new information also comes into play with historical figures, even someone like Lincoln who’s been dead for more than a century and a half.
For example, since the late 20th century, scholars have been gathering and making available to researchers electronically nearly 100,000 documents from Lincoln’s quarter-century legal career in the federal, state, and county court systems. These records provide a vast new resource to examine the Illinois rail-splitter’s life and work. One recent result: Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln by George R. Dekle Sr., published in May by Southern Illinois Press.
This sort of painstaking examination of historical minutiae is being done for many major world figures of the past, such as Napoleon, England’s Queen Elizabeth I and Jesus.
Akin to this are the researches into archives that turn up diaries, books and documents that have been long overlooked or ignored. And, then, there’s always the possibility of the discovery of never-before-seen material, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Lest anyone think that there is a statute of limitations on such discoveries, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a lesson in never giving up hope. These 900 documents, hidden away only a few decades after the death of Jesus, were discovered in the late 1940s in caves near Jericho, just west of the Dead Sea, and they provide a never-before-available window into the era when Christianity was just starting and Judaism was undergoing a major evolution.
Yet, biographies based on such discoveries, whether mined in archives or found in a cave, are written much less often than those which are based on a new perspective that the author brings to the subject.
An example of this was David McCullough’s 1992 “Truman” which resurrected the reputation of Harry S. Truman which was in dire need of resuscitation. Indeed, at one point in his presidency, Truman had a 22 percent approval rating, lower than even Richard Nixon’s on the eve of his resignation of the presidency.
When it comes to Lincoln, millions of Americans are hungry to understand him, and generations of authors have sought to feed that craving.
For instance, during a recent two-month period, books about the Great Emancipator, in addition to the one on his murder trials, included Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America by David J. Kent (Fall River Press); Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War by Fred Kaplan (Harper); Becoming Abraham Lincoln: The Coming of Age of Our Greatest President by Richard Kigel (Skyhorse Publishing); and Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal (Simon & Schuster).
Blumenthal’s fits into a growing subgenre of books that examine Lincoln the politician, a role that during the first century after his assassination was often downplayed. The Kaplan work is similarly part of a new more nuanced examination of Lincoln’s relationship to slavery. And, like Kigel’s book, many modern authors are delving deeply into his childhood and early adulthood.
And it’s understandable that, given the cataclysmic rhetoric of some politicians today, readers want to know about the man who “Saved America” during an earlier crisis.
Like Elizabeth I and like Jesus, Lincoln is a tantalizing mystery. People know him as the man who “freed the slaves” or “saved the Union,” but, while those characterizations are true, the facts of the matter are much more complex.
Assassinated just as the Civil War was ending, Lincoln is a national martyr — but he was also a bare-knuckles politician, devious and, in his way, kin to generations of Tammany Hall and Chicago Machine ward-heelers. He was a man who joked about his own ugliness and was caricatured as a gorilla for his lanky gangliness. Yet, he was among the greatest writers America has ever produced.
With his complexity of character, thought and action, Lincoln can’t be pinned down. Nonetheless, historians and other writers try. Not only do they lust to understand him, but they use Lincoln as a mirror in which to examine their generation’s particular anxieties and debates.
It’s the same person, the same 56 years of life. But the stories we tell change over time as more fine details and better-understood nuances emerge — and, even more, as we as a people change over time.
As long as the United States exists, we will be fascinated by the nation’s 16th president. And there will always be another Lincoln biography to come.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 2.18.18