HONOR'S VOICE by Douglas L. Wilson


The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln
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 In a 1932 essay, James Thurber imagined a librarian of Congress, overwhelmed by pointless biographies of Civil Warera figures, imposing fines for new books about Lincoln. Wilson (director, International Center for Jefferson Studies), however, makes a highly original contribution to Lincoln studies with this thoughtful portrait of the war president's remarkable development during the 1830s and '40s from a frontier bumpkin into a rarely gifted leader. It is startling to encounter Wilson's portrait of the young Abe Lincoln as a small-time brawler and petty frontier politician who had troubled relations with women (ultimately resulting in a marriage of convenience to Mary Todd), suffered severe bouts of depression, and made vicious anonymous attacks on political opponents in newspapers. It is a truism that Lincoln's origins were humble. They were also, as Wilson reminds us, violent. On the frontier, one established one's manliness, and even one's political credibility, by fighting, wrestling, and even dueling, and Lincoln was a superior fighter. Indeed, a turning point of his life was his 1831 wrestling match with Jack Armstrong of the Clary's Grove Boys, which established Lincoln as a leader of the New Salem settlement. (In closely analyzing the many varied accounts of the match, Wilson conducts a fascinating exercise in historiography and the distortion of historical memory by the growth of legend and the passage of time.) And though ``honest Abe'' was honest indeed by frontier standards, he could be slippery and dissembling in the battles of prairie politics. He proved to be a sharp, unsparing tactician in court and in the Illinois legislature. Nonetheless, Wilson shows, Lincoln constantly battled his shortcomings and, endowed with innate sensitivity to people and a real regard for honorable conduct, transcended his rough origins to achieve national prominence and, ultimately, greatness. An absorbing and first-rate contribution to Lincoln studies. (2 maps and 3 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-40788-X
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1998


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