Abraham Lincoln

by Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg was one of the great American writers and poets of mid-twentieth century America. He won numerous prizes and awards; he won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. (Actually, it was first published in two books: The Prairie Years and The War Years, but these are often combined into one large book.)

I didn’t like it. My differences with the Pulitzer committee are five:

Sandburg had a bad habit of jumping from topic to topic without rhyme or reason. In one paragraph, Sandburg explains that Lincoln’s assassination destroyed the foundations of his efforts to build a strong union at the close of the Civil War. In the next paragraph, Sandburg leaves the reader hanging about the fate of Lincoln’s efforts; instead, he describes the search for the factors that motivated John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln. In the middle of a chapter about the reaction in Washington to the end of the Civil War, he tosses in a paragraph about a woman making a personal appeal to Lincoln. He shifts from past tense to present tense and back again. This kind of narrative jerking around drove me crazy.

Florid Writing
Sandburg was a poet, so we should expect some use of poetic imagery in this book, but I think that he carried it too far. Sometimes his imagery was so brilliant that it obscured the message; I found myself struggling to push past the verbal flowers to get to the actual subtance. 

Expanding Time Scale
The Greek philosopher Zeno is famous for his paradox in which a runner never catches up to a turtle. By thinking in terms of the runner closing half the distance to the turtle per interval, Zeno showed that the runner would never actually reach the turtle. His error, of couse, was that his intervals became vanishingly small. Sandburg did something like this with this book. The first half moves along smartly, tracing Lincoln’s rise to prominence. But in the second half, the book goes into ever-greater detail, discussing the particulars of battles, political disputes, personal anecdotes, and so on with more and more pages per month of Lincoln’s life. His last month drags on for quite a few chapters. The further I got while reading the book, the further away from the end I felt I was. Much of the last few chapters went into excruciating and trivial details that a good editor would have deleted, but what editor could presume to delete the work of such a renowned writer?

I’m sorry, but while Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our greatest President (he and Washington are, to my thinking, tied for that spot), he was no saint. He sometimes got things wrong. Sandburg, however, drapes him in such robes as befit a Greek hero. I realize that a coldly objective biography would not have touched the souls of American readers as deeply as this book did, but he certainly could have cut back on some of the laudatory verbiage.

I think that Sandburg made too much of little things during Lincoln’s life that anticipated his death. If Lincoln ever mentioned anything about death, Sandburg recorded it. He describes in detail Lincoln’s callous attitude towards his personal safety. I’m sorry, but I refuse to believe that Mr. Lincoln had the gift of magical foresight. I must say, though, they truly were lax in those days. Lincoln went many places without a guard; anybody could walk freely around the White House grounds, and with a good story you could probably be allowed to talk to Lincoln himself. Lincoln saw lots of common people coming to ask favors. I doubt that the staff bothered patting such people down for guns. Of course, no American president had ever been assassinated, and in fact in those days, assassination was simply unthinkable. 

The Good Points
Nevertheless, I learned much from this book, and parts of it were truly illuminating. Lincoln’s character shines through. He was soft-hearted; of the many petitioners asking for a pardon for a relative sentenced to death for cowardice, desertion, or falling asleep on sentry duty, Lincoln granted every one that he could find any excuse for, however lame the excuse. He pardoned one fellow for desertion because the guy wanted to marry his sweetheart before he died. 

In one respect, Lincoln WAS saintly: he demonstrated truly Christian charity towards all. At the outset of the Civil War, he wanted to speak with the commander of the Army, who lived and worked in Washington. Since it was rather late in the evening, Lincoln did not send for the general to come to the White House; instead, he and an advisor went directly to the man’s home. Told that the general was out, Lincoln decided that he would wait in the parlor. After an hour, the general returned home, was advised that the President was waiting for him in the parlor — and went to bed because he was too tired to see the President. Now, any other President would have fired that guy instantly, but Lincoln didn’t mind. He spoke to the general the next day. 

Another factor that struck me was Lincoln’s intense sadness. Unlike our modern presidents, Mr. Lincoln felt genuine remorse for every death of every soldier on both sides of the war. It ate at him; observers remarked that he usually bore a grim countenance and seldom smiled except when comforting those hurt by the war. He liked to visit Army hospitals where he’d shake the hand of every patient, Federal or Confederate. 

Although Lincoln was frequently criticized for being too soft to get things done, his political acumen was undeniable. He didn’t browbeat or twist arms as Lyndon Johnson did; he charmed and cajoled his opponents into what they had to admit were fair compromises. Among the political class in Washington, Lincoln was frequently opposed but universally liked. Everybody agreed that he had the best of intentions and was a man of integrity. They just disagreed with him about how to achieve those intentions.

Lincoln sat in the middle of a political chasm. Washington was divided between the abolitionists and those who felt that slavery was Constitutionally unassailable. Both sides fought the issue with the same ferocity that now animates the debate over abortion: there simply was no middle ground between them and no toleration for compromise. Lincoln’s success in getting these people to work together was phenomenal, and getting the 13th amendement banishing slavery through the House was nothing short of miraculous. 

All in all, I don’t think that I would recommend this book, Pulitzer Prize be damned. It’s just too long and too verbose to justify a flat-out recommendation.