The first unusual thing about Lincoln, by Thomas Keneally, is its one-word title. Sure, you get lots of books with one-word titles these days, but they are often subtitled with really long explanatory bits. Lincoln stands alone.
Lincoln the book, like Lincoln the man, is simple yet profound. Keneally gives us narrative, and at the same time explores the world in which Lincoln grew, learned, strived to make his mark, and changed history.
As I started upon this book, I wondered why there was a need for another biography of Lincoln. Surely he’s been biographed so often before? And yet as I read, I understood. Only a book written in our time can give us a genuine idea of what it must’ve been like in the 1800s.
Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. A book written in the 1860s, or even the 1960s, assumes the reader knows cultural norms of the period in which it is written. When we read an old book with today’s “glasses” on, we miss the nuances and mental shortcuts of an earlier age, unless we ourselves lived then and can remember well enough, or unless we study that time period.
So, what uniquely 21st-century observations has Keneally given us? My pick is the influence Lincoln’s oratory had on all political presentation in the future. The now legendary Gettysburg address was at the time considered an after-thought, after the (then) stunning hour-and-a-half speech by classical scholar Edward Everett.
Lincoln took his extraordinary life experiences—including growing up in poverty and struggling through many years of failure—and used it to connect to people, whether politicians, soldiers or the public. He knew that politics is possibly more art than science, and his early years were filled with reading, studying not only works of law but also great works of literature.
An interesting aspect of Lincoln’s life was how his faith evolved from scepticism in his youth to the kind of faith he wielded as President. Keneally doesn’t attempt to answer the questions that arise: Was his faith real? Or was he merely saying the words he knew would comfort a largely Christian public? Had he come back to traditional Christianity, or embraced something similar to Jefferson’s Deism? In the end, the reader is left with these questions. And I think that’s the way it should be.
Don’t keep reading any further unless you want a spoiler. Okay, so most people know he died. But thankfully Keneally doesn’t keep dropping hints as some authors do, ruining the narrative by making the end inevitable. Instead, Lincoln’s assassination comes as a shock, as does the abrupt end of the book as Lincoln quietly expires the next morning.
Thankfully, Keneally rounds off the book with a collection of sources, not just a list but a conversational guide to the books he used to put together this biography.
For an absorbing but brief look into the life of possibly America’s greatest President, Lincoln will be hard to put down.