- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

LINCOLN, Mass. — Historian David Herbert Donald was reading in his back yard one afternoon when he noticed two strangers — a well-dressed middle-aged couple — standing just outside the fence.

“I got up and said, ‘Is there anything I could do to help you?’” Mr. Donald, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, explains during a recent interview.

“We are from Ohio,” he quotes the woman as saying, “and we are in New England on a tour of great American authors’ homes. We just finished in Concord. We went to Emerson’s house and Hawthorne’s house and Alcott’s house, and on our way back, we thought we should stop in Lincoln and visit your house.”

The 84-year-old scholar, mild in voice and manner, giggles self-consciously, tickled by the memory. Unless you’re David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose, the historian’s life is generally a private affair, confined to the regard of your peers. Mr. Donald, however, is sought out by the known and the unknown, presidents and common readers.

Fame, like a stranger in his yard, has come to him.

He has won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe, but his books on Abraham Lincoln are his true legacy. Many fellow scholars acknowledge him as the leader in the field. There’s even an award named after him, the David Herbert Donald Prize for “excellence in Lincoln studies.”

Last spring, Mr. Donald was the first honoree.

A professor emeritus at Harvard University, Mr. Donald has lived nearly 30 years in Lincoln, Mass., not in homage to the president, but because of good schools and easy access to Boston. Mr. Donald and his wife, Aida, live in comfort in a modern deck house with an expansive, split-level library rich with Lincoln texts and illustrations.

Born into a farming family in Goodman, Miss., Mr. Donald once fancied himself a musician, but some odd twists landed him in history.

He majored in history and sociology at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and after graduation was accepted into the University of Illinois.

Having grown up in a segregated town, he was interested in race relations and planned to study the post-Civil War era. He also needed money, though, and found a job working as a research assistant to a leading Lincoln scholar, James Garfield Randall.

For decades after Lincoln’s death, writing on the president was dominated by nonhistorians, such as poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote a best-selling, lyrical and famously unreliable biography. Mr. Randall helped transform Lincoln studies into a professional discipline.

“Sandburg was a poet and a dreamer,” Mr. Donald says. “Randall was a very careful scholar who worked through unpublished and manuscript collections no one had ever used. He brought system and order to the field.”

Mr. Randall encouraged him to write about Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon. “Lincoln’s Herndon” began as a dissertation and became Mr. Donald’s first book. Published in 1948, it’s still the “standard treatment” of Herndon.

Mr. Donald’s reputation grew throughout the next few decades as he carefully picked apart the Lincoln myths dear to poets, dreamers and politicians. In such classic essays as “Getting Right With Lincoln” and “The Folklore Lincoln,” he noted Lincoln’s transformation upon assassination from laughingstock to saint.

Dismissed as “second-rate” and a “huckster” while president, Lincoln later was co-opted by Democrats and Republicans, segregationists and civil rights advocates. Although he belonged to no church in his lifetime, Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians were among those who welcomed him posthumously.

“He has no ax to grind,” says Gore Vidal, who consulted with Mr. Donald while working on “Lincoln,” a best-selling novel published in 1984. “So many of the Lincoln priesthood see themselves as involved in a major religion. David has none of that.”

In 1996, Mr. Donald published “Lincoln,” widely considered the best one-volume work on the president and so popular that both presidential candidates that year, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, said they were reading it. Some scholars had hoped for a more expansive account of the president, but critics and fellow authors praised him for a thorough, yet readable book.

“His book on Lincoln is not only a classic in the field … it is a treasured resource,” says Doris Kearns Goodwin, who lives near Mr. Donald and has her own Lincoln book, “Team of Rivals,” coming out this fall.

“When I first began working on my Lincoln book, nearly a decade ago, he generously invited me to his home so I could peruse his fabulous Lincoln library. He sat with me for hours, suggesting which sources were the most important to begin my journey.”

Mr. Donald says he’s fortunate that he never met Lincoln and risked getting too close to his favorite subject. But he has had the chance to meet some contemporary leaders, starting in the early 1960s, when he was invited to the White House by President Kennedy.

“The president was sitting in his rocking chair with a yellow pad, taking notes while I talked,” Mr. Donald recalls.

Other presidential encounters followed: a White House visit with Lyndon Johnson (“a difficult man,” Mr. Donald says) and a talk on Lincoln for the first President Bush. Inscribed copies of former President Bill Clinton’s “My Life” and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Living History” lie on the mantel in Mr. Donald’s living room.

Mr. Donald has written several other Lincoln books, including “Lincoln at Home,” a study of his family life, and “We Are Lincoln Men,” essays about Lincoln’s friends and associates. He also helped edit “Lincoln in the Times,” a fall release that compiles New York Times articles published during Lincoln’s lifetime.

“When I started out, I wasn’t interested in Lincoln and frankly found him a tiresome old fellow who was rather long-winded, told too many stories, was kind of a rough, frontier sort,” Mr. Donald says.

“As I grew older, I realized the jokes and stories he told were really very funny and they always had a point to them. And I watched the way he worked with people and what an extraordinarily adept politician he was. … He was much more sensitive and human than I had thought before.”

Mr. Donald plans to get off the Lincoln track and has started on a biography of an earlier president, John Quincy Adams, “whose view on the way slavery could and would end was exactly Lincoln’s view a generation later,” he says.

The historian figures the Adams book will be ready in five years, when he’s 89. His doctor has assured him he’s up to the job.

“I’ve said farewell to Lincoln so many times, but this time I think it will really happen,” Mr. Donald says. “I’ll miss writing about Lincoln, but on the other hand, I’ve sort of been there, done that. Perhaps I was getting repetitious anyway.”

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