Unruly Genius

From The Wall Street Journal:

Some 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln—more than any other historical figure except Jesus. But there has never been one like this one by David S. Reynolds. The author, a literary scholar and historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has written a marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historical fullness. Mr. Reynolds is a distinguished cultural historian of antebellum America. Among his many books are cultural biographies of Walt Whitman and John Brown and an earlier work, “Beneath the American Renaissance,” which prepared the way for his unusual approach to biography—stunningly revealed in this life of Lincoln.

Lincoln, like Whitman and Brown, was a product of his times; and those times were wild. Whatever we might think about the divisiveness, partisanship and violence of our own era, it is nothing compared to antebellum America. Government in the first half of the 19th century was weak and unstructured, and established institutions were few and far between. The economy was diffuse and unmanageable: Thousands of different kinds of paper-money notes flew about, and risk-taking and bankruptcies were everywhere; even some states went bankrupt. This was a rough-and-tumble world, and duels, rioting and mobbing were commonplace. Alcohol flowed freely, and Americans were drinking more per capita than nearly all other nations, which provoked desperate temperance movements. Fistfights, knifings and other explosions of violence seemed to be ordinary affairs, taking place even in state legislatures and the Congress. Public rhetoric was abrasive and harsh, and zany humor and sensationalism flourished in the popular press; people were especially eager to read lurid reports of suicides. The nervous nation was coming apart, torn by sectional conflict and the struggle over slavery.

This was the disordered and unruly world Lincoln experienced. The future president was born in 1809, and possessed a natural intelligence, an easygoing temperament, an incredible memory and a sense of “innate fairness.” He became unusually tall and strong, which was helpful in the brawling world in which he grew up. But everything else about him he absorbed and adapted from his environment. Far from distancing himself from the wild world of antebellum America, Lincoln, says Mr. Reynolds, “was thoroughly immersed in it.” After he assumed the presidency, he was able to redefine democracy for his fellow Americans “precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions—from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.”

Much of Lincoln’s greatness, writes Mr. Reynolds, came from his ability to tap into this culture. He was able to respond thoughtfully to the teeming chaos of antebellum America. Lincoln was less a self-made man than an America-made man. He told his law partner, William Herndon, “Conditions make the man and not man the conditions.” But, according to Herndon, Lincoln also “believed firmly in the power of human effort to modify the environments which surround us.” Indeed, his capacity to shape the world around him was crucial to his life and to the life of the nation.

Like any good biographer, Mr. Reynolds takes us through the important events of Lincoln’s life. But unlike previous biographers, Mr. Reynolds spends an extraordinary amount of time presenting his cultural context. In effect, his biography becomes less a narrative of Lincoln’s life than an explanation of his genius. We come to understand fully why Lincoln did what he did, and why he did it when he did it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG suggests that it is publishing malpractice for Penguin to obtain such a glowing review in The Wall Street Journal – a publication with a readership for which the hardcover price of $45 would be a typical tip for the server at a New York City business lunch with a prospective client – and not have Amazon’s Look Inside/Preview in place.

Perhaps nobody at Penguin knew Amazon’s phone number.

2 thoughts on “Unruly Genius”

  1. Fairs, fair PG. It’s not published for another three days and in my experience the “look inside” never appears on Amazon for pre-orders.

    I don’t think that this is a good policy on Amazon’s part but I can understand them not wanting look inside available before the text is finalised. On the Indie side I guess that having a final text probably means “publish it now without delay”, but I’m sure Trad pub could manage it months in advance.

    • I see your point, M., but the file for a book like this has been sent off to the printers for the hardcopy printing process for some time, so I have some doubt that the text for the first few pages of the ebook is going to change during the preorder period.

      For those of us who read ebooks almost exclusively, Look Inside is the equivalent of picking up a printed book in a book store to read the first few pages. For me, Look Inside is a do or die for a book unless I’ve had it recommended to me by a friend who understands my reading tastes.

      Another point that occurs to me is that, given the behavior of a great many consumers, the publisher or indie author often gets only one chance to catch a given reader’s interest. I don’t know if I’m going to remember to go back a book I hear or read about that I can’t make a buy decision on whenever it becomes available.

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