Perhaps the most spectacular thing about this book is that it takes arguably the most mythologized president in US history – Abraham Lincoln – and builds a compelling and detailed account of his life and administration without losing any kind of emotional impact. We all know what happens, here. We all know who Lincoln was (more or less), and we all know that he was one of the greatest presidents (more or less), and we all know that this ends in tragedy. But the simultaneous attacks on secretary of state William Seward and president Lincoln still packed a wallop. I’m not going to say that I cried at the end, but I definitely felt repulsion at the violence and the loss of a great leader. This reaction was not at all something I saw coming, feeling myself too jaded and familiar with the history to be moved by a biography.
I can only credit Kearns’ masterly storytelling. She delved pretty deep in this book (it’s almost a thousand pages), with a narrative centered on Lincoln, but involving the cabinet members he surrounded himself with. You’re essentially getting five biographies in one, here, with ample time given to the other characters important to this era – George McClellan, Ulysses Grant, and Robert E. Lee. Kearns also spends ample time on the wives and children of her subjects, which (I admit) at times seemed to weigh this book down. Descriptions of balls and shopping sprees and romances gave a great deal of flavor to the portraits, but could be a little superfluous.
And that’s really the only complaint I can bring to this book. Sometimes Kearns describes the boring details of life a little too vividly. But these details give enriched the lives of these people, and, without them, we would be left with typical book about a bunch of white men – and we’ve had plenty of them.
I consider myself to be a fairly politically aware person. I love history, and pay great attention to the history that is playing out before us. This book felt more like present history than a retelling of events from 160 years ago. The incidental rise of Abraham Lincoln from western lawyer to president didn’t feel mythological – it felt shocking and full of a hopeful capacity to set the country on the right path. His assassination didn’t feel like a stale and familiar event; it was a fresh tragedy played out before my eyes with vivid and horrific clarity. The description of Lincoln’s last great day, and the placidity and bemused yet tender affection he showed Mary in the moments leading up to his assassination were hauntingly affective.
I can’t recommend this book enough. I think it’s easy to take Lincoln for granted, but this biography shows why we love him so much. Kearns doesn’t need to mythologize him – she doesn’t hide his faults, or the criticisms against him, or the his evolving views on slavery and desire to put the nation before emancipation – and she doesn’t attempt to obfuscate or corrupt his legacy for her own agenda (which seems to be a common approach in recent decades). I think this may be the definitive biography of Lincoln and his era.