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••• The International Writers Magazine - 21 Years on-line - Book Review

Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds.
Penguin Press, New York, 2020. 1,088 pp.
ISBN: 9780698154513.
• Charlie Dickison review

An ambitious book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds is a cultural biography delivering an unforgettable portrait of our greatest president against a painstakingly evoked American landscape of the 1800s.


The North's victory in the Civil War with the end of slavery was paramount to Lincoln's presidency. We know that. But Reynolds takes care to help the reader understand how Lincoln succeeded. Slavery, as an issue, had simmered without resolution since the Republic's founding. One of the book's insights is the long-standing antagonism of England's Puritans and the loyalist Cavaliers that pitted Cromwell against King Charles in civil war. Reynolds strongly suggests that conflict was brought to the Colonies, when the factions landed at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, respectively. Had self-righteous Puritans continued the battle with aristocratic Cavaliers on American soil over the flashpoint issue of slavery?

One trope in the book uses the historical character of Blondin, a French tightrope walker who made daring crossings of Niagara Falls in 1859. As a political leader, Lincoln had to be Blondin, sometimes leaning left, sometimes right, but never getting ahead of the “people.” For example, keeping slaveholding border states, like Missouri, in the Union was essential. His Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 freed the slaves in the Southern states, but not those in the Northern border states, Hypocritical? Or political Blondinism?

A cultural biography has many threads in its tapestry. Reynolds offers biographies within the biography for the cast of characters who were part of Lincoln's life. He details social movements, “isms,” and groups--the Know-Nothings, the young men who supported Lincoln--the b'hoys and the Wide-Awakes--and when Lincoln called for wartime volunteers, the Zouaves (NYC firemen).

Above all, Abe has a satisfying completeness for how the story is told. When Reynolds gives us the Gettysburg Address, he intersperses the narrative with a photograph of lifeless Union solders on the battlefield, an illustration of the proposed design for the cemetery, a photograph of Lincoln, amid a sea of onlookers, reading the Address, and then Lincoln's handwritten 272-word speech on paper, signed and dated. Reynolds wraps up his narrative with an erudite examination of why this is one of history's most powerful, elegant speeches.

There's much, much more in this portrait of the man and his times. Nonetheless, the telling of the story is so involving, the 1,088 pages add up to a sustainably pleasant read.

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© Charlie Dickinson 11:27:20

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