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The Accidental President : A sober assessment confirms the greatness of a gawky genius : LINCOLN, By David Herbert Donald (Simon & Schuster: $35; 660 pp.)

October 22, 1995|David W. Blight | David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Amherst College and author of "Frederick Douglass' Civil War" (Louisiana State University Press), is now working on a book about the Civil War in American historical memory

At one end of the Washington mall, guarding the Potomac River behind him and looking outward on other monuments to triumph and tragedy, sits Abraham Lincoln in his temple.

Since its unveiling in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial has served as a national altar for everything from regional and racial reconciliation to righteous advocacy of causes left and right, sacred and secular, transitory and eternal. The idea of Lincoln's peculiar, self-made genius--"unancestried" as poet James Russell Lowell called him--has been necessary to the faith that Americans, especially in fragmented and uncertain times, can have the courage of their democratic convictions.

There have always been many uses for the Lincoln who, as Yogi Berra might have said, "was born in a log cabin made from his own hands." Enormously useful as well has been Lincoln the Olympian statesman and master rhetorician who, as Garry Wills wrote in 1992's "Lincoln at Gettysburg," reconfigured the natural rights tradition in the Gettysburg Address and "revolutionized the Revolution." As admirably chronicled in Merrill Peterson's recent "Lincoln in American Memory," the iconic Lincoln became a huge vessel into which we have poured an unceasing array of cultural mythology.

Any Lincoln biographer must decide how to negotiate this minefield of myth. David Herbert Donald, twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for biographies of Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe, and professor emeritus at Harvard, has steered clear of legends and delivered a one-volume study of Lincoln's life that will augment and replace the previous modern standards by Benjamin Thomas (1953) and Stephen Oates (1977).

Donald's "Lincoln" is a masterful scholarly achievement. Indeed, the legions of readers and television viewers reached by Gore Vidal's "Lincoln" (1984) will find in Donald's work a kind of factual gyroscope, a marvelously researched and well-crafted reconstruction of the 16th President's life, beginning with a brief account of his real ancestry, in which Lincoln was not much interested, and ending at the transcendent moment he died in that crowded room across the street from Ford's Theatre.

During the 1930s and '40s, the era when Carl Sandburg's massive Lincoln came to dominate the American imagination, Donald's mentor, James G. Randall, played the leading role as critical scholar to Sandburg's singing poet. Randall's Lincoln was moderate, the vital centrist who ultimately resisted the radicalism of his era and saved the Union. Much, though not all, of Randall's perspective on Lincoln survives in Donald.

In an interesting way, Donald, a historian of conservative instincts, has observed and participated in decades of change in the methodology and subject matter of American history. In his important collection of essays, "Lincoln Reconsidered" (1961), he was one of the first to call for the serious study of the "folklore Lincoln." Moreover, he was an early reviewer and energetic supporter of Vidal's novel. Perhaps in this new biography, Donald is playing the careful scholar to Vidal's perversely entertaining novelist, not unlike his mentor attempted to be for Sandburg's proletarian romanticism.

Donald's biography is foremost the product of painstaking research and a lifetime of reading in the Lincoln archives and literature. It is a definitive version of Lincoln's personal story told, as Donald says, about "what he knew, when he knew it, and why he made his decisions."

The book is written with an elegant restraint that may frustrate some readers hoping for more drama or speculation about the turbulent events swirling around Lincoln's daily life. But Donald has effectively used Lincoln's own language--the famous speeches and state papers, public letters and the inexhaustible trove of the President's own jokes and tales--to develop the story.

Donald carefully demonstrates just how much Lincoln was a product of frontier poverty, minimal formal schooling and a rolling stone journey through a variety of occupations in his 20s. Lincoln loved his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, but was extremely ambivalent about his father, Thomas Lincoln, loathing Thomas' work in farming and carpentry. Self-taught in grammar, bookish to distraction, fiendishly ambitious, a backwoods rumbler when he needed to be (he even accepted one challenge to a duel), Lincoln made it into the Illinois Legislature by his mid-20s.

He fell almost naturally into the study and practice of law, and Donald makes the legal career, balanced with the personal story of his tempestuous marriage to the well-born but emotionally high-strung Mary, a central theme of the book's first half. Donald musters sympathy for Mary (the sad-faced lawyer riding the circuits for months at a time was not easy to live with), but in the end she is portrayed as an irretrievably tragic woman.

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