Friday, January 3, 2014
Photo: Book's paperback cover, via doriskearnsgoodwin.com. There are many editions, but this is the one I read.
Extremely well-written and well-researched book (and, from just a few pages, partially the source of Spielberg's movie, which was also very good) that will make you see and know Lincoln like you never did--or, like you never thought you could. There's so much to digest here that you'd better take your time to do so--but it is well worth the slower pace. I normally read books--even ones this long--in a few days (just over 700 pages, including the epilogue and notes.) Maybe a few weeks, if I'm really busy. This one took several weeks, and I started and finished other things in the meantime.
But, as I said, it was worth it. Reading this spawned a few historical fiction ideas for me. (My book would be narrated from John Hay's POV. Read the book to find out who this guy was.) It gave birth to a memory that I have Carl Sandburg's (until-now authoritative) biography around here somewhere. Reading this book reminded me that I also have a book of Lincoln's own writing around here somewhere. (I have to seriously organize my books.)
By the time you're done with this, you'll feel like you knew Lincoln personally. That you were there in D.C. with him, in those cold rooms, during those cold winters. That you were there to see Mary, his wife, misbehave. That you were there for Chase's political greed, or for some northern generals' incompetence. In essence, you'll simply feel like you were there.
There've been so many books about Lincoln that writers now have to find a different vehicle from which to tell his story. (I suspect the same is true for Jesus and Shakespeare. A recent book about Shakespeare--his biography written in tandem with the exact lines of Shakespeare's famous "Seven Stages of Man"--comes to mind.) This is true here. Goodwin chose to write her Lincoln biography via the men of his cabinet. His team of rivals, if you will--all men who ran against him, or who were in different political parties, or who had differing political agendas, or...you get the idea. And so we get a biography of Lincoln, in Goodwin's voice, told with the information taken from Lincoln's team of rivals. And the wives, girlfriends, and friends of those men. And throw in the information provided by the more important generals, too. The people providing most of the material include John Hay and John Nicolay, his assistants; William Seward, his Secretary of State; Edwin Stanton, his Secretary of War; Salmon Chase, his Secretary of the Treasury; Edward Bates, his Attorney General; and Gideon Welles, his Secretary of the Navy. The generals we see and hear from the most are, of course, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman; and, to a lesser extent, Generals McClellan, Hooker and Burnside--all three of whom almost managed to lose the war.
But this book isn't just told via diaries, journals, letters, etc. Goodwin's writing style and voice gather all of these together. The result is a mesmerizing, incredibly thorough and very enlightening book that is never boring or condescending. It'll show you why Lincoln is revered, even deified, by many Americans today. If you thought Lincoln's reputation was overblown or perhaps ill-deserved, read this book, and, like me, you'll learn otherwise. And who knew he had such a high-pitched voice, or that he was such a political genius?