Tuesday, 17 February 2009

“Abraham Lincoln”, by George S. McGovern (Times Books)


An excellent, short biography of America’s 16th president

With the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, it is not surprising to find a large number of new volumes on the 16th president coming out. While many question the necessity of more books on Lincoln (there are more published works on Lincoln than any other person in history – edging well over 16,000, if the Economist is to be believed), McGovern has written a short, highly readable account of Lincoln’s life.

Lincoln is a personal favourite of mine, and not only because of his great deeds as president. His wit and intelligence is evident in almost everything he ever wrote. McGovern has written a perfect introduction to Lincoln, that should appeal to casual readers and scholars alike. McGovern details Lincoln’s life, how he was “a self-made man who rose above the circumstances of his birth”, and receiving only one year of formal education nonetheless “rose improbably and unevenly, becoming a clerk, surveyor, businessman, lawyer, family man, statesman, and national political figure”.

Balanced and fair, the book does not pass over Lincoln faults – the suspension of habeus corpus during the civil war, for example, McGovern appears to take particular issue with; likewise the closing of certain newspapers that were critical of Lincoln. The author also details Lincoln’s contradictory character – funny, personable, yet oft-crippled by depression (what he and friends called his “melancholy”). This offers the reader a well-rounded, balanced, but also surprisingly complete biography (given its mere 155 pages) of America’s favourite president. It also encourages others to follow his example – knowledge-seeking, self-taught, tenacious (if in a rather quiet manner), yet still civil and honest. There is little wonder that Lincoln has achieved the mythic status he has.

Like all volumes in Times Books’ American President Series, this is a superb, short-volume biography, which bridges the divide between scholarship and popular history, while offering a positive picture of the president in question. Beautifully written, engaging and entertaining, I’d recommend this as a starting point for anyone interested in learning more about Abraham Lincoln.

An excellent read.

Also try: Thomas Kenneally’s Lincoln (2003 – another short, amusing biography); Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2009 – this is much longer, and some people might find its level of detail suffocating); Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Towards None (1994); David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (1996)

1 comment:

  1. There was nothing balanced about this book, just another epistle from the Church of Lincoln. I found DHD's "Lincoln" far more balanced. It is also far longer (599 pages), though quite a fun read.