- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

In 1855, in a letter to a young man seeking guidance on how to become a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln advised “get the books, and read.” One wonders whether he would offer the same counsel today in response to the absurdly large number of books published about him over the last few months, climaxing earlier this week with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth on Feb. 12th. In a collective act of madness or hope, American publishers released more than 70 books in anticipation of the Lincoln bicentennial.

Of course it was impossible that all these books could gain attention, reviews or sales. The publishers must have known that. And yet they pressed forward, spitting out Lincoln titles at a promiscuous pace. Many books — which in a quieter time might have gotten reviews and readership — sank without a trace. Others achieved some notice. But so far, only one, James McPherson’s “Tried By War,” has broken out to the best-seller lists. This roundup lists some of the best books in several categories.

In the category of “fun” is Mark S. Reinhart’s Abraham Lincoln on Screen (Second edition, McFarland, $55, 241pages), an original and entertaining look at Lincoln’s place in American popular culture. The true mass art of the 20th century was the moving image, and Lincoln has appeared as a character in at least 300 motion picture and television productions since the 1890s, from “Birth of a Nation” through “The Twilight Zone.” An astonishing number of great actors have taken their turn as the 16th president including Gregory Peck, Dennis Weaver, Royal Dano, Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, Raymond Massey, Sam Waterston, and, in no less than nine films including Shirley Temple’s “The Littlest Rebel,” the little-remembered but uncannily Lincolnesque Frank McGlynn, Sr.

The best coffee table book of the bicentennial is Philip B. Kunhardt III et al’s Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon (Knopf, $50, 494 pages). This big, heavy pictorial volume containing hundreds of illustrations — many of them rarely seen — is not the linear biography that one might expect. Instead, it is a delightful history of how Lincoln’s image has been constructed by his friends, historians, pop culture, film, art, photography, memorials and monuments. Another illustrated book is K.M. Kostyal’s Abraham Lincoln’s Extraordinary Era (National Geographic, $35, 224 pages). Many of the black-and-white period photograph choices are dutiful and expected, but the book takes off with its gorgeous color photos of original Lincoln relics.

The most intriguing book on the Lincoln family is Charles Lachman’s, The Last Lincolns: The Rise and Fall of a Great American Family (Union Square, $24.95, 483 pages) Why, unlike the Adams, Roosevelt or Kennedy families, that enjoyed decades of influence over American public life, did Abraham Lincoln’s line of influence end so soon? Mr. Lachman’s book offers a fascinating take — and a sad meditation — on why Lincoln’s survivors and descendants never matched his singular greatness.

For the story of Lincoln’s official White House family, turn to Daniel Mark Epstein’s, Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries (Collins/ Smithsonian Books, $26.99, 262 pages) Today, the employees of the executive office of the president approach 2,000 souls. Recently, the Obama administration announced that the White House counsel’s office alone will double in size and employ more than 20 lawyers. Contrast modern presidential staffing with Lincoln’s White House, where he fought and won the Civil War, managed the Cabinet and administered the civil government, handled foreign affairs, composed nearly all of his correspondence and speeches and wrote them out in longhand and freed the slaves, all with the help of no more than three male secretaries. Mr. Epstein sheds light on the remarkable young men who served at Lincoln’s side.

Three new books focus on the importance of Lincoln’s ideas. For the book that got Lincoln elected in 1860, see David H. LeRoy’s Mr. Lincoln’s Book: Publishing the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Oak Knoll Press & Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, $49.95, 187 pages). The 1858 debates made the obscure Illinois lawyer and politician famous, but it was their publication two years later in book form that made him president. Mr. LeRoy tells the exciting tale of how the book came to be, how Lincoln got the debate transcripts edited in his favor and how the author tracked down more than 40 of the 100 copies presented to Lincoln by the publisher.

Lewis E. Lehrman’s Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (Stackpole Books, $29.95, 412 pages) fleshes out the most important turning point of Lincoln’s political life — his October 1854 speech in which he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the extension of slavery into the territories. Lincoln had given up politics and returned to private life. Aroused, he emerged as a leader of the anti-slavery cause and in this speech set forth the principles that took him to the White House.

Finally, Thomas L. Krannawitter’s Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President (Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95, 353 pages) confronts the big questions asked by generations of Lincoln’s critics. Was Lincoln a racist? Was he right about the Founding and the Declaration of Independence? Was there a right to secession? Was the war about slavery or economics? Was Lincoln the father of Big Government? Mr. Krannawitter makes a robust, unapologetic and persuasive argument that Lincoln’s guiding principles were true for all time, and that he remains our greatest statesman.

On the ever-popular subject of the assassination, two books focus on little known aspects of the Great Crime. Michael J. Kline’s The Baltimore Plot: The First Conspiracy to Assassinate Abraham Lincoln (Westholme, $29.95, 520 pages) details the sinister plot by Maryland rebels to murder the president-elect on his way to Washington for his March 1861 inauguration. The conspiracy came closer to succeeding than Lincoln ever realized.

Andrew C.A. Jampoler’s The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight From the Gallows (Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 328 pages) charts the mysterious story of the son of Mary Surratt, the woman hanged on July 7, 1865, for her alleged role in the murder of the president. John Surratt, a Confederate spy, courier and intimate of John Wilkes Booth, was deeply involved in the plot. When he fled the country, he left behind his mother to die in his place. John Surratt lived on for decades, an enigmatic coda to the sad events of April 1865.

Three excellent mini-biographies manage to stay afloat atop the flood of recent Lincoln books. In Allen G. Guelzo’s Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, $11.95, 160 pages), and James M. McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln (Oxford, $12.95, 96 pages), two eminent Lincoln historians successfully distill an epic life into the essence of the man in pocket-size volumes. In George McGovern’s Abraham Lincoln (Times Books, $22, 208 pages) the former senator and presidential candidate examines Lincoln’s use of politics and power with insight, admiration and skepticism on Lincoln and civil liberties.

Also from Mr. McPherson is Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (Penguin, $35, 384 pages), the definitive account of how Lincoln fired generals who would not fight, taught himself military strategy and found his warrior partner in victory, U.S. Grant. Rounding out the portrait of a president at war is premiere naval historian Craig L. Symonds’ outstanding Lincoln and His Admirals (Oxford, $27.95, 430 pages) The wide- ranging naval war was fought on vast oceans and inland rivers, and Mr. Symonds restores Lincoln’s passion for the Navy to its proper place.

The granddaddy of all the recent books is Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Johns Hopkins, $125, two-volume, 2,024-page boxed set). Monumental is size, depth and scholarship, this is the new standard biography of our time and surpasses all other life portraits of our 16th president, and is the most important book of the bicentennial.

James L. Swanson, Edgar Award-winning author of “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” has just published a book for young adults, “Chasing Lincoln’s Killer” (Scholastic).

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