shrewd old abe


A braham Lincoln seems to be the man of the hour. Barack Obama, who has consciously modeled himself on the six- teenth president and launched his campaign from Lincoln’s Springfield, celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of his predecessor’s birth with a speech stressing his pertinence at this historic moment. At the same time, a group of prominent histo- rians rated the American presidents and placed Lincoln at the very top of their list. This won’t surprise anyone: his “greatness” is widely accepted, even by those who know little about the man. And most of us know little about him, despite the many hundreds of books on the subject that have been written over the last century and a half. As a publisher once told H. L. Mencken, “there are four kinds of books that never, under any circum- stances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories, secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism, and other claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln.” Too many of the books on Lincoln, unfortunately, are as full of claptrap as any occultist text. Back in 1962, Edmund Wilson complained, with justice, that “There has undoubtedly been written about [Lincoln] more romantic and sentimental rubbish than about any other Ameri- can figure, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe; and there are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”

more from Brooke Allen at The Hudson Review here (must click article to download pdf).