Book Review: LINCOLN AS I KNEW HIM (edited by Harold Holzer) : AH

LINCOLN AS I KNEW HIM: GOSSIP, TRIBUTES & REVELATIONS FROM HIS BEST FRIENDS AND WORST ENEMIES, edited by Harold Holzer, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 288 pages, $16.95.

A century ago, volumes of reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by people who had known him were popular publications. Renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer revives the form in his latest book, collecting memories of our 16th president from articles, autobiographies, letters, diaries, and the old tribute books themselves.

Holzer arranges the memoirs of 49 individuals according to their relationship to Lincoln–family members, foes, fellow lawyers, foreign observers, military men, politicians, journalists, artists, authors, African Americans, and White House intimates. The famous and the obscure rub shoulders as they recall Lincoln. Thus Ulysses S. Grant describes his interviews with the president as a newly commissioned lieutenant general, while E.W. Andrews, an unsung officer, remembers accompanying Lincoln to Gettysburg in November 1863 and witnessing the president’s immortal address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery there.

Their descriptions animate the familiar image we know from Lincoln’s photographs: the tall, lanky, sad-eyed, tousle-haired figure comes to life as he folds his long legs up to his chin or lifts an ax by the end of its handle to demonstrate his strength. Like his observers, we feel joy when Lincoln’s melancholy features lighten with a wide grin and a hearty laugh at the conclusion of one of his innumerable anecdotes. We discover Lincoln to be forthright and honest (yet reticent and guarded), often silent (but the most popular speaker at any gathering), deliberate and determined, tenderly empathetic to the helpless, and an avid reader who loved to declaim aloud from his favorites. He was so much more than the sum of his hardscrabble roots, his years of plodding legal work, and his haphazard pre-presidential political career, that he defies easy definition. Most of the reminiscences Holzer chose so skillfully are also darkened by the black shadow cast at Ford’s Theater, so ultimately this rewarding book is filled with sadness.

MARK DUNKELMAN is a Civil War historian living in Providence, Rhode Island.

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