The ideal concise biography of an American icon-- now available in paperback for the bicentennial of his birth
The self -mad e man from a log cabin, the great orator, the Emancipator, the Savior of the Union, the martyr--Lincoln's story is at the very heart of American history. But who was he, really? In this outstanding biography, award-winning author Thomas Keneally follows Lincoln from his impoverished birth through his education and presidency. From the development of his political philosophy to his troubled family life and his actions during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is an incisive study of a turning point in our history and a revealing portrait of a pivotal figure
Keneally offers up a new volume in the popular Penguin Lives series of short biographies. Some writers appear to benefit from the forced brevity. Keneally, however, seems inhibited and constrained by the limitation in his life of Abraham Lincoln. Unlike his previous, lengthier nonfiction outings (notably The Great Shame and the recent American Scoundrel), his life of Lincoln reads not as a great illuminating narrative placing past events in a fresh perspective, but rather like a Cliffs Notes version of better books by such scholars as David Donald. The facts of Lincoln's life as related are both true and readable, but the author offers no new insights, no imaginative or interpretive leaps, no poetry. Keneally is at his best, perhaps, in presenting Lincoln in his final stage, a calculating and at times ruthless war leader. This is the Lincoln whom Keneally's "American scoundrel," Dan Sickles, knew best and with whom Keneally also seems to be pretty well acquainted. Still, all the other Lincolns here-the wilderness child, the prairie lawyer, the husband, the father, the fledgling politician-come across as little more than hollow robots walking doggedly from one well-known benchmark to the next, lacking that one element so essential to real life: a soul. (On sale Dec. 30) Forecast: Lincoln sells, and so does Keneally. So, despite its flaws, will this brief bio. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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December 29, 2002
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Excerpt from Abraham Lincoln by Thomas Keneally
1ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS BORN on a mattress of corn husks in a nest of bear rugs on the morning of February 12, a Sabbath, 1809. The United States was then an infant nation with another risky war against Great Britain ahead of it. The birthplace for this new child of the republic was a one-room, windowless, dirt-floored log cabin in Hardin County, near Hodgenville in Kentucky. The cabin stood on land to which his father's title was uncertain. Abraham's mother was a tall, bony, sinewy, undemanding woman of about twenty-five, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, a bastard child, a good wrestler on a frontier where wrestling was an important sport engaged in by both men and women. As one witness said, she was "a bold, reckless, daredevil kind of a woman, stepping to the very verge of propriety." Two years before, she had given birth to a daughter, Sarah. For the greater part of his life, and in three states, the boy would be said to come from unrespectable stock. According to Abraham Lincoln's later law partner, William H. Herndon, there was a report that Thomas Lincoln, for a consideration from one Abraham Inlow, a miller of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, assumed the paternity of the infant child of Nancy Hanks, and though the tale does not fit with the 1806 marriage date of Tom and Nancy, the story was just one that would later haunt and help form Abraham. Thomas was a stocky, thirty-year-old hardscrabble farmer and carpenter who had a reputation among his neighbors as a raconteur, a fact that gives some support to the idea that he was the boy's biological father, for Abraham would all his life sprout with rustic tales and parables to an extent that sometimes bemused even his friends. Thomas meant to call the child Abraham after his father, a pioneer from Virginia, whom in 1786- when Thomas was a little boy-he had seen killed before his eyes by British-allied Indians. Plagued by Kentucky's uncertain land titles, Tom Lincoln moved his family, when Abraham was still an infant, ten miles to a 230-acre farm on Knob Creek. Of sturdy Tom Lincoln many contradictory things are said-that he was industrious, that he was lazy; that he was shiftless, that he had the pioneer spirit; that he was proud of the intellectual leanings of his frontier son, and that he punished Abraham for them. One thing is certain-that Tom was in his way an archetype of the Protestant subsistence farmer, who, according to Thomas Jefferson's dream, was the stuff of American virtue and the fit occupier of the frontier. Tom and his type would inherit the American earth without recourse to the corrupting influence of banks, and though they might not be able to read and write with any fluency, their native wisdom and their democratic impulse would derive directly from the ennobling soil. Tom Lincoln was probably unaware in any explicit way that he embodied that ideal, but the boy early on refused to buy the concept. Where Jefferson believed he saw forthright independence, Lincoln saw ignorance and brutalizing labor. He would not grow up admiring his hardhanded father. And though, in growing, Abraham developed a body and a physical endurance appropriate to a frontier boy, his spirit was always uneasy in the backwoods. When he was nominated a candidate for his presidency and was being harried by a Chicago newspaperman, John L. Scripps, for information on his childhood for a campaign biography, Abraham quoted Gray's Elegy:"'The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make of it." In Knob Creek, at six years of age, Abraham began to learn his letters from a slave-owning Catholic teacher in a log schoolhouse on the Cumberland Road. This institution was what they called on the frontier a "blab school," where students learned by rote. There, with his older sister, Sarah, during one brief session in 1815 and another the following year, Abraham learned to write his name and to c