Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The New Standard of David Herbert Donald

What makes a biography the “standard life?” Most obviously, if the biography eventually eclipses the subject in fame – think of Boswell’s Johnson – then all subsequent biographies, no matter the additional information they contain, or the quality of the writing – and again Samuel Johnson comes first to mind – will always be something less than the standard. Generally though, if the fame of the subject is sustained across generations, then each generation will produce a new standard life to replace those that preceded it. And here no better example exists than the biographers of Abraham Lincoln.

From Nicolay & Hay in 1890, to Ida Tarbell in 1900, to Beveredge, to Sandburg, to James G. Randall, our 16th President has never lacked a standard life in print for each passing generation.

So what makes David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln the standard life for our times? First, Donald had access to the Lincoln Papers, which previous biographers did not. As a result of the materials available to him, but perhaps more importantly, because of the man who emerged from those sources, Donald’s portrait is of a very different, and much more accessibly modern man than the one we know from the earlier portraits.

I’ll let Donald (from his preface,) speak for himself:

“In focusing closely on Lincoln himself – on what he knew, when he knew it, and why he made his decisions – I have, I think, produced a portrait rather different from that of other biographers. It is perhaps a bit more grainy than most, with more attention to his unquenchable ambition, to his brain-numbing labor in his law practice, to his tempestuous married life, and to his defeats. It suggests how often chance, or accident, played a determining role in shaping his life. And it emphasizes his enormous capacity for growth, which enabled one of the least experienced and most poorly prepared men ever elected to high office to become the greatest American President.”

David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln is still our Lincoln, but in the hands of this extraordinary historian and biographer, Abraham Lincoln is once again his own man as well; flawed, sad, brilliant and profoundly human.

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