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'The Lincoln Anthology' edited by Harold Holzer, 'The Best American History Essays on Lincoln' edited by Sean Wilentz, Ronald C. White's biography 'A. Lincoln' and others

Lincoln certainly transcended his historical moment to speak for all times, but lest we forget, he was human too.

February 01, 2009|Jon Meacham | Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and the author, most recently, of "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House."

The Lincoln Anthology

Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now

Harold Holzer

Library of America: 800 pp., $40


The Best American History Essays on Lincoln

Edited by Sean Wilentz for the Organization of American Historians

Palgrave Macmillan: 252 pp., $16.95 paper


A. Lincoln

A Biography

Ronald C. White Jr.

Random House: 798 pp., $35



The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

John Stauffer

Twelve: 448 pp., $30


Abraham Lincoln

James M. McPherson

Oxford University Press: 80 pp., $12.95


Looking Ffor Lincoln

The Making of an American Icon

Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt , Jr.

Alfred A. Knopf: 512 pp., $50


It was Tuesday, May 30, 1922, the day of the dedication of the solemn and splendid memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, and the ceremony on the Mall featured speeches by President Warren Harding and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

The most interesting observations about the 16th president, however, were not spoken amid the pomp but in the pages of the Crisis, the journal of the NAACP founded by W.E.B. DuBois. "Abraham Lincoln was a Southern poor white . . . poorly educated and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed. . . . He was big enough to be inconsistent -- cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man -- a big, inconsistent, brave man."

DuBois' observations were brief yet controversial (one reader called them "unkind and uncalled for"), and he defended them in the next edition of the magazine. "We love to think of the Great as flawless," DuBois wrote. "We yearn in our imperfection toward perfection -- sinful, we envisage Righteousness." Such idolatry, however, serves little purpose: If we require the perfect and the righteous to lead us to higher ground, then we are not likely to get there, for there is not exactly a burgeoning oversupply of perfect and righteous leaders.

The conflict between the adulatory impulses of hero-worshipers and the cooler calculations of the historically minded is perennial. But the tension is especially interesting in Lincoln's case since he is perhaps the most universally admired and revered member of the American pantheon.

Of all the leaders of the past, one would think, surely we could agree that Lincoln is above reproach: Yet such an agreement would serve us poorly. No one questions his bona fides as a great man, as the Savior of the Union and the Redeemer President. DuBois was not quarreling with the enduring image of Lincoln. He was, rather, asking his readers -- and, by extension, history -- to note well and long remember that Lincoln was a man before he was a monument, and the story of a man who becomes a monument is more interesting and instructive than the story of a man who was born one.


The man behind the icon

This is the Lincoln who fascinates me and who has captivated Americans for nearly a century and a half: the paradoxical, all-too-human politician who overcame his own prejudices and flaws to rescue the Union and, through Emancipation, redeem the original sin of the Founders. And this vivid, earthy, ambitious, uncertain, doubting and ultimately exhausted man is, thankfully, the central character in the great rolling stream of books being published to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth in 1809 at Nolin Creek in Kentucky.

Readers looking for a path through the ever denser forest of Lincoln volumes should be guided by their own lights: What I can tell you is that the books listed here are smart, engaging, illuminating and fun. Some, like collections edited by Harold Holzer and Sean Wilentz, are terrific samplers. Holzer's is rightly called "The Lincoln Anthology," and you can silently underscore "The" in the title. A product of the wonderful Library of America series, "The Lincoln Anthology" gives us hundreds of pages of the greatest offerings on arguably our greatest president.

From Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" quartets on Lincoln to E.L. Doctorow in "The March" and Barack Obama's speech announcing his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Ill., in 2007, Holzer has created the best kind of anthology: one that surprises and engages by its serendipity and idiosyncratic choices. It is good to have a single source in which to dip and read what Bram Stoker, Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, H.L. Mencken, Dale Carnegie, Langston Hughes, James Agee, Mark Van Doren, Jacques Barzun, Reinhold Niehbur, Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg have had to say about Lincoln in prose and in verse.

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