Honest Abe

The Ultimate Lincoln Reading List

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ is hitting screens nationwide, and it’s important to note that the screenplay was brought to you by Tony Kushner, Pulitzer-winning playwright of ‘Angels in America’ and based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals’. From Goodwin’s history to Gore Vidal’s novel, here are the best books on our 16th president.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincolnby Doris Kearns Goodwin

In 1939, as the Great Depression refused to relinquish its grip, director John Ford reckoned with a Young Mr. Lincoln and, in the film’s final scene, heralded gathering clouds. For all of Ford’s American legend-making, the coming storm symbolized the difficulty in locking down the figure of Lincoln. Was he great? How great was he? To answer that question, Goodwin knew not to stare at the sun—as Tolstoy said of Lincoln, “We are still too near to his greatness.” So she scattered her gaze between Secretary of State Willaim Seward, Attorney General Edward Bates, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and others to show the political and personal mastery of Lincoln. Each of them loved the president, yet they fought him for the 1860 nomination. Greatness, it turns out, does not come easily, but from the steady work of human compromise.

Lincolnby David Herbert Donald

Donald won one more Pulitzer than Goodwin, so perhaps he had an excuse to head straight for the great man himself. Donald’s 720-page book is considered the best one-volume take on the 16th president, and the narrative rarely strays from him. He so closely locks in his target that he hardly ever writes of something that Lincoln himself couldn’t have known, like the workings of the Confederacy or the progress of a certain Civil War battle or two.

Abraham Lincolnby Carl Sandburg

Then there’s the poet’s labor of love, and I’m not talking about Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” “O Captain! My Captain!”, “Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day” and “This Dust Was Once the Man,” which are of course essential readings as well. If you are finding your spare time too copious, then what you need is the heavy duty of Sandburg—yes, that Carl Sandburg, the one who’s also the generator of short combustions of American verse—in painstaking, biographically detailed prose. The full monty comes in at a sleek six volumes, and reads like three Wars And Peaces. If you wimp out and elect to go with the one-volume distillation, Sandburg would likely wonder what the point of it is, since one shouldn’t even bother about such a silly engagement as a mere 800 pages. I’ve only dared dip my toes in the abridgment, and the book reads like a cross between The Great American Biography and The Great American Novel, with the added charm that quotations of letters and other documents perform like little Sandburg poems lowered into the river of narrative.

Lincoln at Gettysburgby Garry Wills

The other thing we know about Lincoln was his way with words. No wonder Wills, who can’t fall asleep at night without having written a phone book, and who himself has a way with words, couldn’t stay away from Honest Abe. The historian, who forgets nothing he reads and has read everything, smothers the Gettysburg Address with what could only be described as historical literary hermeneutics, inviting Pericles, Emerson, and everyone else along the way for a close reading of Lincoln’s transcendent speech. Wills’s efforts paid off; the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slaveryby Eric Foner

Next on the agenda: slavery. The sharpest glance at this topic comes from Foner’s prodding of Lincoln’s attitude towards race. Turns out, just like the rest of us, Lincoln was a cautious navigator of the social norms of the day. But anyone familiar with the ever-tipping of the point on gay marriage will recognize that it is possible for a great many men and women to surf just ahead of a wave of mass societal transformation. How can a historian be balanced and fair, rather than passionate and activist, on the issue of race? Foner seems to accept the challenge, and shows exactly how to be balanced and fair, since getting things accurate regarding Lincoln is like getting it right when it comes to America.

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chiefby James McPherson

Do we need another book about Lincoln by another Pulitzer winner? And is there a special Pulitzer for Lincoln Books: Readers’ Choice Award? (Actually, there is the Lincoln Prize.) Yes, because there are many sides to the man that we still haven’t fully explored yet. This volume’s topic is war. Does Lincoln get enough credit as commander in chief? No, and McPherson makes the case that Lincoln’s leadership through America's deadliest war saved the Union.

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Herndon's Lincolnby William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik

Am I forgetting that Lincoln was a lawyer too? Can the guy be good at a few more things? If you want to contribute to what humans most certainly do not need more of, then write a book about Jesus, Napoleon, and Lincoln, all in one. Blame the overstock on Herndon, who was Lincoln’s law partner. Herndon’s Lincoln is considered the first serious biography of the president. Most of the writing was done by Lincoln enthusiast Jesse Weik, and the reception was mixed at best and downright hostile at worst. Herndon seemed to hint at Lincoln’s illegitimacy as a child, and he was never invited to his house because he didn’t get along with Mrs. Lincoln. So it comes as no surprise that Mary Todd got a nasty depiction in the book.

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slaveby Jennifer Fleischner

Speaking of Mrs. Lincoln, the first lady had always been a contentious figure in the legend of Lincoln. Did she have a bad temper? Probably. Was Lincoln always worried that she’d embarrass him in public? Rather likely. But she also had a wonderful friendship with her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, and this little window into her soul is told intimately by Fleischner.

Lincoln: A Novelby Gore Vidal

There is a tendency in the most riveting historical fiction to focus on the rivets a little too much—just consider the outrageous gossip of I, Claudius. The late Vidal probably did more than any other writer to chisel into the public head the image of Lincoln as a wishy-washy undecided voter on the issue of slavery, an agonized and depressed leader of bickering subordinates, and the long-suffering husband of an emotional wife. Vidal’s Lincoln even gets syphilis from a prostitute. But only such sacrilegious deflating of the American ego can really humanize what most people can merely see as a god, though we all know that Lincoln could only have been a flawed man like all the rest of us. And what fun the novel is!

Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1832-1858 Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865By Abraham Lincoln

The best way to know our greatest leader is to spend some time with him yourself. From the first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” And the second: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Amen.