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Searching for the Real Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln in His Times
By David S. Reynolds

Of the 16,000 books produced about Abraham Lincoln since his death 155 years ago, not one, in the view of the historian and biographer David S. Reynolds, fits the definition of a “full-scale cultural biography.” Reynolds, the author or editor of 16 books on 19th-century America, has set out to fill that void with “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,” a prodigious and lucidly rendered exposition of the character and thought of the 16th president as gleaned through the prism of the cultural and social forces swirling through America during his lifetime.

More character study than narrative biography, this Lincoln portrait, fully 932 pages of text, goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man: his tastes, likes, dislikes, the quality of his thinking, the evolution of his ideas — all shaped and molded by the society around him. At the same time, Reynolds succumbs to a pitfall in drawing conclusions about how particular Lincoln experiences influenced his later thoughts and actions when no evidence for such causal effects is discernible. The author employs speculative language abundantly, as when he writes within one three-page section: “must have been also saddened by,” “could not but have been moved by,” “could have exposed him to,” “must have also been aware” and “appears to have been influenced.”

It was a raucous and turbulent culture that greeted Lincoln’s birth in 1809, with a sentimental quality, certainly, but also “ablaze with sensationalism, violence and zany humor” as well as “popular exhibits full of strange, freakish images.” In tracing the multiple strains of American culture, Reynolds explores Puritan and Southern Cavalier sensibilities, frontier mores, alcohol consumption and the temperance movement, the Baptist Church, Quakerism, frontier humor, popular music, rural carnivals and P. T. Barnum, among other cultural phenomena.

[ Read an excerpt from “Abe.” ]

Lincoln embraced nearly all of it, Reynolds writes, “in an extraordinarily wide-ranging manner.” Indeed, he adds, Lincoln ultimately was able to redefine democracy “precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions — from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.”

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