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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 02:12 am

The biggest Lincoln birthday present of all

The Great Man comes to life in a new two-volume biography

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Abraham Lincoln: A Life Michael Burlingame, 2 volumes, cased, 1,976 pp., notes and index, $125. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009.

Proud parent Michael Burlingame has delivered to us a fine 8 lb., 1 oz. baby just in time for the Lincoln Bicentennial. Burlingame, professor emeritus at Connecticut College, has been expectant for approximately one decade.

Christened Abraham Lincoln: A Life, this book reflects a ton of hard work at the scholarly salt mines. It is time well spent spelunking. Michael Burlingame is respected for his nose, which is long and deep and sniffing. His eyes have weakened, his hair has grayed, and his walk is stooped — all in service as Lincoln’s scholarly servant.

Burlingame has knocked on many doors and shined his lamp about. He could sleepwalk through the Library of Congress. He has plumbed extensively through “primary documents”— the stuff of real history, the files of tiny defunct newspapers, caches of specialty pamphlets and ephemera, the letters passed between people, the troves of materials used by other authors and then set aside.

It tells. There is a Lincoln-Come-to-Life in these pages via the magic of these contemporary accounts.

Friends and acquaintances, rivals and colleagues all speak up about Lincoln. These accounts speak far more vividly than the historian’s usual stuff. The book is a river of text winding through a prairie of quotes. While Burlingame occasionally tosses in a bit of psychology and his informed opinion, it’s not an unwholesome amount, and his book is clearly an effort to let the record speak for itself rather than on behalf of any ideology.

What we find is that the Great Man really was a great man. Honest Abe was Honest Abe. His face deserves a place on Mount Rushmore and his fame must be eternal. Lincoln’s memory gets vandalized with all kinds of slams from all kinds of people — but the Honest Old Abe that you loved in grade school really did exist in that format. Lincoln was known for his honesty, odd appearance, studiousness, storytelling, moral conscience, politicking and unusual lawyering. His rags-to-riches story inspired the people around him, as well as early Republican leaders. His sterling reputation substantially added to his political appeal among partly leaders and the electorate.

Lives of Lincoln always have plenty of knobs and levers to grab onto. In just one tale you have the dramas of early frontier life, political squabbles, the Civil War, the difficulties of implementing moral reform in a constitutional order, the economic development of a nation, the development of the Republican Party, the homefront battles with Crazy Mary, and the multitude of picturesque characters. . . all these things attract us to Lincoln. It is to Burlingame’s credit that he doesn’t spare the pages here, and he doesn’t let the author get in the way of the narrative.

This reviewer was especially struck by the careful account of the Secession Winter. This period between Lincoln’s November election and his spring Inauguration — a time in which the southern states seceeded even as complicated and intensive political maneuverings were taking place in Washington and around the country, within federal government and within the new Republican party. In this period, we find Lincoln reminding leaders to hold firm to the party’s goal of stopping slavery.

This reviewer was especially struck by the careful account of the Secession Winter. This period between Lincoln’s November election and his spring inauguration was a time in which the southern states seceded — even as complicated and intensive political maneuverings were taking place in Washington and around the country, within federal government and within the new Republican Party. In this period, we find Lincoln reminding leaders to hold firm to the party’s goal of stopping slavery.

Our North Star to Lincoln’s early years has always been the pile of materials developed by his law partner, Billy Herndon. Herndon, long knocked as a stem-winding windbag crackpot, has been redeemed in recent years by Knox College scholars. In their view, you subtract the nonsense and weigh carefully the mass of what’s left in order to come up with a fairly real result. It’s this Herndon Makeover that may receive the most critical concern, although Burlingame notes that Herndon’s material really is the only game in town when it comes to the early years.

Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher, has issued this book in the form of two large volumes tucked inside a green case. It’s priced higher than most books you’re going to buy this year, but content-wise you’re actually getting about four books in one. There is a lot of Lincoln crammed into these covers. Lincoln junkies will have to have it. Lincoln buffs will pop for it, too. And if there are any people in Springfield with an interest in politics, it’s a keeper. This is a book that will develop a lot of muscles in you: physical as well as intellectual.

Michael Burlingame should be a proud father putting this one on it’s feet.

Todd Volker was inducted into the Tribe of Lincoln by an aged Lombard College graduate, tapped on his shoulders with a Carl Sandburg biography and sent through Knox College. He lives in Ottawa, Ill., where his autograph is deteriorating inside the right knee of the Lincoln statue in Washington Park.

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