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Excerpts from Lincoln’s autobiographical writings, some quite brief, selected, edited, and annotated by Zall, a senior researcher at the Huntington Library. Zall wants these passages culled from letters and other sources to provide “a story of Lincoln’s life in his own words.” Unfortunately, the 16th president was not loquacious, certainly not about his quotidian life, so he reveals little. As Zall admits, “He was not the kind of person to bare his soul in public or in private.” We do learn to share the young Lincoln’s excitement when he earns his first dollar; we cringe as he consents to sew shut the eyes of some intransigent hogs; we laugh at some of the doggerel he composes about his rural background (“When first my father settled here, / “Twas then the frontier line: / The panther’s scream, filled night with fear / And bears preyed on the swine”); we admire him for his stand on slavery (the sight of slaves was “a continual torment to me,” he notes); and we tremble with the dramatic irony of a vision he has in late 1860: in the mirror he sees a faint second image alongside the first, and his wife believes it’s a dark harbinger of his death. Zall reminds us that Lincoln won only 40 percent of the popular vote in 1860, that he freed slaves only in the states that had seceded, that he was in some ways a reluctant candidate. What does not emerge in these excerpts, however, is any sense of why Lincoln came to be who he was. Why did he not simply remain a farmer? Why did he struggle so hard to educate himself? Why did he want to enter politics? Whence his fierce humanism? Abe may have been honest, but about his own character, he was none too candid. A collection that casts a strong light, but so much of it falls behind the president that shadows obscure his face—and much of his character.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8131-2141-8
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Univ. Press of Kentucky
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1999


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