The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Blog:
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    Memorial Drive
    by Natasha Trethewey
Book Jacket

Abe
Abraham Lincoln in His Times
by David S. Reynolds
29 Sep 2020
1088 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press
ISBN-13: 9781594206047
Genre: Biography/Memoir
Critics:
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From one of the great historians of nineteenth-century America, a revelatory and enthralling new biography of Lincoln, many years in the making, that brings him to life within his turbulent age.

David S. Reynolds, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning cultural biography of Walt Whitman and many other iconic works of nineteenth century American history, understands the currents in which Abraham Lincoln swam as well as anyone alive. His magisterial biography Abe is the product of full-body immersion into the riotous tumult of American life in the decades before the Civil War.

It was a country growing up and being pulled apart at the same time, with a democratic popular culture that reflected the country's contradictions. Lincoln's lineage was considered auspicious by Emerson, Whitman, and others who prophesied that a new man from the West would emerge to balance North and South. From New England Puritan stock on his father's side and Virginia Cavalier gentry on his mother's, Lincoln was linked by blood to the central conflict of the age. And an enduring theme of his life, Reynolds shows, was his genius for striking a balance between opposing forces. Lacking formal schooling but with an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement, Lincoln had a talent for wrestling and bawdy jokes that made him popular with his peers, even as his appetite for poetry and prodigious gifts for memorization set him apart from them through his childhood, his years as a lawyer, and his entrance into politics.

No one can transcend the limitations of their time, and Lincoln was no exception. But what emerges from Reynolds's masterful reckoning is a man who at each stage in his life managed to arrive at a broader view of things than all but his most enlightened peers. As a politician, he moved too slowly for some and too swiftly for many, but he always pushed toward justice while keeping the whole nation in mind. Abe culminates, of course, in the Civil War, the defining test of Lincoln and his beloved country. Reynolds shows us the extraordinary range of cultural knowledge Lincoln drew from as he shaped a vision of true union, transforming, in Martin Luther King Jr.'s words, "the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

Abraham Lincoln did not come out of nowhere. But if he was shaped by his times, he also managed at his life's fateful hour to shape them to an extent few could have foreseen. Ultimately, this is the great drama that astonishes us still, and that Abe brings to fresh and vivid life. The measure of that life will always be part of our American education.

"Magisterial and authoritative...Reynolds provides a portrait rich in texture and context, not only of Lincoln but of the America he inhabited and helped redefine. The result is a must-read addition to the canon of Lincoln biographies." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Long but never boring. A fine cultural history and biography that is accessible to all readers, especially students." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Reynolds' magisterial biography focuses on the dozens of different influences and experiences that fortuitously coalesced to turn Lincoln into the icon he's become...Even readers who think they know Lincoln's life deeply will find new insights here. This is sure to win a wide audience." - Booklist (starred review)

"Overall, Reynolds succeeds in bringing Lincoln and his times to life and in revealing why, even today, he remains an endearing figure. Ambitious, comprehensive, and highly recommended for public and academic libraries." - Library Journal

"Abraham Lincoln is the central figure of the American story, a flawed but noble man who insisted against all odds that the national experiment in liberty must go on in spite of all. In this wonderful new biography, David Reynolds brings the giant to life once more, reminding us of the limitations and the possibilities of politics in a fallen world." - Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America

"David Reynolds' splendid biography is chock full of fresh information and insights about Lincoln that disprove the adage that nothing new can be said about this iconic American. Focusing on the cultural forces that shaped Lincoln and his contemporaries, Reynolds portrays the gathering storm of sectional conflict that erupted into a war over slavery and disunion in which Lincoln's commitment to freedom and racial justice was grounded in moral commitment as well as political and military exigencies. A work of literary distinction as well as sound scholarship, this biography will take its place as a classic in Lincoln studies." - James M. McPherson, author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

"Before Lincoln became a man for all time, he was a man of his time. In this compelling, thought-provoking life of the Great Emancipator, David Reynolds reminds us that a prerequisite for leadership in a democracy is an ability to tap the zeitgeist and turn it to decisive effect, as Lincoln preeminently did." - H. W. Brands, University of Texas at Austin

David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. His other books include Beneath the American Renaissance (winner of the Christian Gauss Award), John Brown, Abolitionist, and Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America. He is a regular book reviewer for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the Wall Street Journal.

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