ABRAHAM LINCOLN: The Man Behind the Myths by Stephen B. Oates

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: The Man Behind the Myths

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Nobody called him 'Abe,'"" and other, more momentous points-of-difference--by the author of the most-recommended one-volume Lincoln biography. The term ""myths"" is slippery: what Oates intends is to save Lincoln from both his idolators and his detractors. Written on a popular level, this is fairly reasonable in the main--and the next thing to trite. In the first section, Oates takes up ""mythic"" Lincolns: Sandburg's all-time Man of the People, a combination of martyr/saint and frontier hero; and the ""countermyths"" of demon (to white southerners, preeminently) and ""Negrophobe"" (to many latter-day blacks). In the first instance, ""the myth is what Americans wish the man had been""; in the last, ""born of deep spiritual and psychological need"" for self-liberation. (The different terms of analysis are typical of Oates' obtuseness.) The second section looks briefly at man-vs.-myth--making the very most, apart from standard disclaimers (no Ann Rutledge romance, no lack of ambition) and recognitions (the literary gift, the ""lifelong obsession with death""), of the maligning of Mary Todd Lincoln. (She's never received due credit ""for helping Lincoln resolve his fears of intimacy with women."" He was ""hard to live with"" too, etc.) The third and fourth sections have to do, crucially, with Lincoln and Negro slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Reconstruction. Oates' general line of reasoning is at once plausible and superficial. Lincoln always opposed slavery but expediently kept mum until the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing slavery to spread beyond the South (where he had thought it would die out); then he joined the new Republicans, challenged Douglas, etc.--notwithstanding his ""ambivalent feelings about what specific social and political rights black people ought to enjoy."" In the White House, he managed to stand firm (despite his melancholy, unpopularity, and personal woes) and, once convinced by ""various and complex pressures"" that emancipation was (in his words) ""essential to the preservation of the Union,"" he acted without reservation. Thus, he ""also emancipated himself from his old dilemma."" (The suspect letter to Horace Greeley--""if I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it""--was just a political feint.) And Sandburg et al. notwithstanding, ""he became a pretty tough Reconstructionist, too."" (The chapter notes identify proponents of various points of view.) The last two, highly dramatized sections portray John Wilkes Booth as the sole assassin (no Stanton plot) and widowed Mary Lincoln as a persecuted and piteous figure. Oates' historical Lincoln is an unimaginative cut-out--""more heroic than the immortal Man of the People, because we see him overcoming his deficiencies and self-doubts."" But the flow of facts and the gloss of sentiment is sufficiently in the American Heritage/Smithsonian vein to satisfy a sizable audience.

Pub Date: April 14th, 1984
ISBN: 0060924721
Publisher: Harper & Row