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London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, London: Vintage, 2001, 822 pp.

London-the-biographyThis book topped my list of things to read to acquaint myself with my new city before I moved, but cancer treatment and all the overwhelm of moving delayed it until I’d already lived here for 18 months. In the end, I’m glad of that timing. I can’t imagine how I would have understood or absorbed much of the book’s content if I didn’t already have some sense of the geography and architecture of the city. This book is as much an interpretation of London as it is a history of it, and I would not have understood its meaning without first having known London itself.

Peter Ackroyd was unknown to me in the U.S., but he is everywhere here, a prolific writer of fiction, history, biography and TV documentaries. He is captivated by the way London’s history and personality live on, even though the city changes constantly. He has a particular interpretation of the city as a place driven first and foremost by commerce, wealth and glamor, with a constant underside of poverty, sordidness and anonymity that allow flourishing subcultures. This masterwork on London captures those themes throughout.

Bolstered by sources but unburdened by the need to prove a historical case, deeply researched but unmoored from the demands of scholarly thoroughness, Ackroyd’s biography unwinds a compelling narrative of London as though it was a living being, a creature carving out its identity across time, with some traits endemic and immutable, and others changed by its story. In spite of its length, the book’s short chapters, organized by topic or neighborhood or niche rather than simple chronology, made it seem like a very quick read. Ackroyd’s prose turns a tome into a page-turner.

As a lover of social history, I enjoyed his attention to London theatre, labor, protests, poverty, literature, crime and other topics, rather than just a litany of major events, leaders and decisions that shaped its history. I especially appreciated the way Ackroyd honed in on microcosms of people and neighborhoods. There are whole chapters dedicated to eccentric personalities that once inhabited a particular street. Each dwelled for 30 or 40 years in a tiny corner of the massive city of millions, but somehow, to Ackroyd, they capture something of London’s essence, so he tells us their stories. By the same turn, there are chapters that look at a particular small square or neighborhood across time, and the way certain traits seem to dwell there. For example, he talks about poverty and seediness in St. Giles, and revolutionary plotting or protest in Clerkenwell Green. Ackroyd sees a persistent, recurring pattern of social behavior that he links to various places in the city, as though the places themselves are inhabited by a particular spirit that shapes the people who dwell there. A more sober historian might scoff, but I found his case compelling and delightful.

In spite of its size, this is not a reference book. If you want to learn about the history of the Temple Bar or when a particular borough was founded, you won’t find that here. Instead, this is a book to read like a biography–cover to cover–in order to meet London and get to know its personality. Like any biography, you might not like the author’s angle, and you will have to rely on your own observations or the alternative perceptions of others to argue for another, truer personality. I found Ackroyd’s insights fascinating, and true to my own reading of the city in many ways. After reading the book, I look at the city differently as I venture out in it. I see layers I did not notice before, I find historical treasures not readily visible, and I am able to place myself within the city’s narrative in a new way.

I recommend Ackroyd’s book to all Londoners and London lovers, though I suggest it will be best appreciated by those who know the city, rather than as an introduction or prelude to a visit.

 

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.

Orphan 8I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.

This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.

The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.

There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.

Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.

First Comes Love? The Ever-Changing Face of Marriage by John C. Morris, Pilgrim Press, 2007, 128 pp.

FirstComesLove.chosenMy denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been in the forefront of marriage equality for many decades, and I have been honored to officiate at many same-sex weddings myself. However, our congregational polity allows for each congregation to make its own decision, and my church is currently having conversations about whether to host weddings for same-sex couples. (As a pastor, I have authority to officiate weddings in outside venues for same sex couples.)

I picked up this book as a resource for that ongoing conversation. Since Pilgrim Press is part of the UCC, I expected it to address the topic directly. Imagine my surprise when Morris did not include anything about the subject of same-sex marriage until the epilogue, and then only a short explanation of the viewpoint of marriage equality he developed in response to the research for this book. While I remain disappointed that same-sex marriage did not get at least an equal treatment and recognition with the 21 other forms of marriage that he explores, the book otherwise accomplished exactly what I hoped it would: deconstructing the idea of “traditional marriage” altogether as a convenient fiction rather than a fixed notion in history.

Morris begins with biblical notions of marriage in the Hebrew Bible, starting in Genesis. After a short comparison of creation stories between Genesis and Olympus, he moves on to the first biblical couples actually described as married. He cites Isaac and Rebekah for the importance of marrying within one’s tribe; Jacob, his wives and concubines as a witness to polygamy; Levirate marriage, where widows marry their brother-in-law; and arranged marriages. He does compare these ancient texts to modern conversations about arranged marriage and miscegenation, although his choice to use the fictional Fiddler on the Roof as an example of Jewish life is questionable. Morris then adds marriage for political purposes and marriage for procreation to the list of Old Testament forms of marriage.

Early Christianity, Morris points out, actually offered revolutionary developments in understanding marriage. Christians opened the way for slaves and citizens to marry by proclaiming all equal in the eyes of God. They also declared that men and women were equal partners in marriage, and that the marital covenant should be a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself spoke against divorce. Finally, early Christians argued for celibacy, even within marriage, as the ideal way to focus on God over the things of this world. (I’m doubtful that most people would still support that one as part of “traditional marriage!”)

Having looked over these various forms of marriage, Morris ventures into questions of what makes a marriage valid and how it is recognized in society, again overturning any notion that marriage has been an unchanging institution. He points to mutual consent, consummation and validation by an outside authority as the typical ingredients to validate a marriage. The fact that we can all quickly think of examples that contradict that construction (like a forced marriage, an unconsummated marriage or a common law marriage) only add to Morris’ argument that marriage has never been a fixed idea. Exploring marriage as sacred covenant and secular contract opens the conversation about the role of clergy in the United States today, in the uncomfortable position of acting as spiritual guardian and agent of the state.

After an exploration of the meaning and evolution of betrothal, Morris adds modern developments in the form of marriage: marrying for love, marrying for happiness, marrying for companionship, marrying as equal partners, marriage detached from property or procreation, and easy divorce. In the end, Morris makes a claim that all couples should be allowed to marry, both in civil and religious ceremonies–but that the two should be separate from one another in form, content and occasion.

This book was a very helpful, readable summary of the evolution of marriage throughout the bible and history, and it would make an excellent resource for congregational study. It does not have the depth of primary source research, historical analysis or scholarly precision that some might desire, but such a book would take nearly 1,000 pages, not a mere 128. I recommend this resource to any group struggling with conversations about the meaning of marriage, as this will ground your conversation in shared history, simply told.

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis, Vintage Books, 2007, 283 pp.

American CreationI know that Joseph Ellis can be a controversial figure, respected by some academics and disdained by others, criticized for his histories of “great men” without much attention to the concerns of women or non-white individuals. I do not know enough about the history to judge the quality of his research, but I thoroughly enjoy the stories he tells and the ways he explores the intersections of the founders of the Revolutionary generation. This is the fourth Ellis book I’ve read, and each one has taught me another layer of the Revolutionary era history while engaging interesting questions and inviting me into a fascinating story.

American Creation focuses in on several key events that were turning points in the choices the Revolutionary generation made, both bold and compromising. In response to questions and critics, Ellis ponders how and why the founders managed to set a new way of government based on soaring rhetoric of liberty, even while failing to address the glaring gap between their principles and the harsh realities of slavery and Native American relocation.

As is typical of his other books, Ellis argues that key circumstances and personalities joined together at critical moments to change history. He begins by looking at the year between the Battle of Lexington and Concord in spring 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, arguing the necessity of an “evolutionary revolution” to give an opportunity for reconciliation with Britain to fail and therefore unite the colonies behind the idea of independence.

The second chapter looks at the fateful winter at Valley Forge. Ellis argues that the experience of disorganization and deprivation endured by troops at Valley Forge sowed the seeds of federalism (especially for Washington and Hamilton), because the later federalists came to see the impossibility of relying on competing states to fulfill their obligations voluntarily. Valley Forge also altered the military strategy to focus on managing the countryside, not just fighting key battles.

Subsequent chapters address the argument for a new constitutional convention to replace the Articles of Confederation and Madison’s developing sense of the new Constitution; the failure of treaties with the Native Americans to stop further settlements of European Americans on the frontier, and the recognition that the newly formed government did not have sufficient power or will to enact justice; the development of a two-party political system after the Federalist Papers and the corresponding change in position by James Madison; and the way Jefferson’s handling of the Louisiana Purchase sealed presidential power even while he claimed to abhor it.

Ellis has another work of readable, engaging history here in American Creation. If you are a history buff or, like me, always fascinated by the Revolutionary generation, you will find plenty of interest here, and a fun book to read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 532 pp.

Wolf HallI stumbled into this by impulse and accident, buying Bringing Up the Bodies from the discount bin only to set it aside when I realized it was part two of a series. When my eyes caught Wolf Hall on the library shelf, I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did.

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn, the book covers the subtle machinations of Cromwell’s service to Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry and Anne. Cromwell is usually a side plot in most books on this place and time. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have had countless novels imagining their relationship, personalities and political maneuverings. Likewise with Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), who get feature roles. Cromwell, however, is generally portrayed as the aide or antagonist to these main characters. Wolf Hall finally gives him the spotlight in our imaginations.

The book begins with a brief account of a working class, violent childhood, followed by disclosure of youthful wanderings and military service on the continent that remain shrouded in mystery. He emerges from time on the continent as a wealthy, well-connected, senior advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall imagines how the most trusted advisor to Wolsey could somehow maneuver to become the most trusted advisor to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, which is an unlikely assimilation but true to history.

Mantel’s storytelling is wonderful, and even after 532 rich pages, I still wanted more. She portrays Cromwell as the smartest man in every room, a scholar with a kindly heart and a desire for grace. He is willing to do what is necessary to accomplish the goals of his master (or his own, which are never quite explicit); however, in spite of about his bloody past as a soldier, Cromwell avoids violence as his tactic, unlike More and the King. In every other portrayal I’ve seen, he is mean-spirited, cold, calculating and harsh. In Wolf Hall, I liked him immediately. He is still calculating, but aloof instead of cold, and winsome in his humor and intellect. His Reformation tendencies emerge as a desire for knowledge, of the scriptures especially.

I can’t wait to dive into Bringing Up the Bodies, and I am already enjoying the miniseries version of Wolf Hall currently airing on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Wolf Hall is a great read.

Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, New York: Vintage Books, 1999, 323 pp.

Isaacs StormI loved Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City when I read it more than 10 years ago, and I have given it to at least a half-dozen other people who have loved it too. He has a way of mixing together historical reporting with narrative storytelling about a particular set of real-life characters that makes it feel like reading a novel. I was drawn to The Devil in the White City because I have always been fascinated by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. I never dug deeper into Larson’s work because I was drawn more to the topic than the author, until one of those people to whom I had lent The Devil in the White City returned the favor by giving me Isaac’s Storm. I read the whole thing in two days, staying up until 2:00 a.m. because I couldn’t put it down.

Isaac’s Storm tells the story of the massive hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas in September 1900, particularly through the eyes of Isaac Cline, the chief weather bureau official in Galveston at the time. Larson follows a similar style to the one he used in The Devil in the White City, telling the story by laying out thick detail and behind the scenes portraits that point toward why things unfolded as they did. He begins by drawing a detailed picture of the city of Galveston at the time of the storm, especially its competition with Houston and its vision as an idyllic paradise for business or pleasure. He also offers an intricate accounting of the history, politics and embattled nature of the national weather bureau at the time. Weather bureau officials were terrified of making mistakes, eager to downplay danger, and in competition with each other for accurate predictions–without permission to use any words that implied a dangerous storm was afoot.

Larson then introduces us to several central characters, the people through whose eyes we will come to see this story. Isaac Cline is primary, along with his family, which includes his brother Joseph. Joseph and Isaac are estranged in the years after the hurricane. While there is no clear answer as to why, Larson offers some hints and ideas about the roots of the tension, including their disagreement about how they should be responding to the 1900 Galveston storm. We also meet several children who survived the storm (this is quickly evident, because their accounts would not be available otherwise), and several ship’s captains who rode out the storm as well.

The tension of the book is palpable, because we as readers know what the people in the story do not–that the hurricane is bearing down on them, and more than 6,000 people will lose their lives. As the story builds, Larson introduces us, with affection, to person after person, and each time you meet a new character you wonder if they will be one of the lucky ones who survive, or the many who perished. Larson tracks the individual choices–left or right, north or south, stay or go–that are the difference between life and death. Once the storm hit Galveston, I couldn’t stop reading until I knew who lived or died.

Isaac’s Storm was a great read for anyone who likes history, weather, science, survival or just a good story. I found it a fact-packed page-turner, and now I want to find more of Larson’s work again.

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth, William B. Eerdmans, 2013, 132 pp.

Spiritual Practice of RememberingMargaret Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and her job is to collect and curate the historical archives of the Congregational church, which includes helping local congregations reckon with their own historical artifacts, records, stories and more. This book is a beautiful theological reflection on that work, the spirituality of engaging our history, and what it is that we are doing when we interact with our past.

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering opens with the wonderful story of a tricorne hat encased in glass in the entryway of a church. By virtue of its age and connection to a legendary preacher, the hat had become somehow sacred. I think any of us who serve congregations with a long history know about those sacred objects that hover in hallways or display cases or even in sanctuaries. Their original users never intended them to be preserved—they were ordinary practical objects—but their age and connection to the past has endowed them with something akin to holiness.

Bendroth’s book doesn’t just probe the spiritual meaning of churches’ old junk, but invites us into a relationship with the past as a spiritual discipline. Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship as “religions of remembrance,” who worship a God active in history, defined by events in time. However, modernism in Western culture emphasizes a break from the past, freedom to define one’s own identity apart from history, and a sense of time always marching forward. Our relationship with the past, then, is as tourists—we are “stranded in the present,” with the past as novelty or nostalgia, but no depth of relationship and identification. We have moved from a medieval faith in which the past and the present co-existed all around us, with the past able to break through and impact this current reality, to an understanding of history as progress that makes the past always different, other and inferior to the present. This historicism, also found in biblical criticism that privileges factual history over other forms of biblical truth, costs us a meaningful relationship with the saints of the past. Bendroth writes:

History for grown-ups is complicated. It asks us to balance sympathy and judgment, hero-worship and sharp-eyed criticism. It recognizes and respects differences across time, but also looks for honest points of connection. … Our ancestors have a lot to teach us. This is not because they were wiser or more devout than we are or were “better” Christians, though we can’t rule out such possibilities. It is because they can point us toward what is essential. (50)

Bendroth also tackles the commodification of history as both entertainment and possession. As technology externalizes memory (photos, recordings, even Facebook place memory outside of our own identity and community, into an external place), it has become less valuable. It has also come to rely less on imagination.

There is a thin line between approaching people and events through imagination and assuming that they are in fact imaginary. The first assumes that the past was “real,” with a separate integrity all its own; the second that there is no past at all beyond what we choose to see. (70)

One of the most interesting chapters was about the way American culture is built on letting go of the past, and American religion models this “historyless.” Our emphasis on experience over tradition has helped with a more religiously tolerant society, but it has also cut us off from rich resources that can come from conversation with the past. We need not be traditionalists in order to value tradition.

The Christian tradition itself is a long conversation about the declaration that “Jesus is Lord.” … A truly creative conversation builds on what has been said before, exploring nuances and suggesting different interpretations—but never assuming that the people who began it have nothing more to say and can be safely ignored. The living do not own the conversation any more than those past or those yet to come. (94-95)

The communion of the saints is a theological idea that helps us understand this obligation, the way we the living continue to interact with the dead.

The ancestors live on in different ways, sometimes as a deep undercurrent of sadness or disappointment, sometimes as a tendency toward suspicion of outsiders or resentment of authority. They can work in positive ways too, inuring a centuries-old congregation against panic or despair. (113)

When we recognize ourselves as part of the communion of the saints, we know that “all God’s people—past, present, and future—form a single, interdependent whole.” (115)

Bendroth develops and explores many concepts that I have vaguely and inarticulately carried for a long time. As a student of history, I find much richness in exploring the life world of the past, but I had never connected that to my fascination and spiritual connection to the communion of the saints. I am also someone willing to let go of much tradition in favor of connecting with the present and future, and this book helped me think through how to engage the past in a good and meaningful way. Her mixture of stories and exploration combine for a book that is delightful, provocative, novel and engaging. I recommend The Spiritual Practice of Remembering to anyone considering the way the past can invite us to a richer present as people of faith.

 

 

 

 

Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O’Donnell, Harper Perennial, 2005, 396 pp.

augustineI picked this up a few years ago to be a refresher on Augustine. I read Peter Brown’s landmark Augustine of Hippo back in seminary, but I wanted to revisit this epic and influential figure, his controversies and his theologies. O’Donnell’s book was on the non-fiction “summer reading” display at the local Barnes & Noble, so I figured it to be a fairly easy go. I was wrong, but I was richly rewarded by the effort this book required.

Augustine: A New Biography is not an appropriate introduction for beginners. O’Donnell is clear to distinguish his project from so many others. While traditional biographies tell Augustine’s story through his writings and the public records of his major controversies–in effect, Augustine in his own words–O’Donnell invites the reader to examine what Augustine’s carefully crafted words leave out. What emerges from O’Donnell is a counter-narrative to the traditional Augustinian biography. It is not an open conflict with the stately portrait of the struggling author of the Confessions and vociferous defender of the faith against heretics, but more like the counterpoint that runs beneath that main melody.

As such, O’Donnell assumes a fairly sophisticated familiarity with Augustine’s traditional biography and catalog. I found myself turning to Wikipedia to remind myself of the various stories and heresies to which he regularly alludes, and even had to chase down a few vocabulary words from time to time. O’Donnell’s writing is an exercise in cleverness, and it does not follow a linear timeline or provide a basic outline. He regularly includes imagined letters, made-up words, and anachronisms as tools of revelation. He invites the reader into a hall of mirrors where he shows Augustine in various reflections and leaves you wondering which one is the distortion and which is the true picture, until you realize that all are equal parts accurate and misleading. Like the end of the hall of mirrors, you leave the biography amused and entertained, but also aware that the reflections have revealed both flaws and beauty marks you had not previously noticed. It is not a place to go for encyclopedic information, but what O’Donnell has created is brilliant and beautiful.

The Augustine that emerges in his portrait is the man behind the curtain of his bold, confident writings. O’Donnell asks, in a postmodern way, why Augustine was so insistent on various points. What was he trying to conceal? Why did he want this version of his story to survive against others? O’Donnell finds answers by quoting more frequently from Augustine’s interlocutors than from the man himself. They offer insight into how Augustine was viewed in his own time, and they interacted with the man himself, not the voice in his writings. The picture that emerges is more changeable than his immutable words, but it is also more pastoral. Augustine’s life’s work was not writing theology for the ages, but holding together a church full of squabbles, attempting to bring about a vision of all believers in catholic unity (a unique contribution from Augustine), all while negotiating imperial politics and the financial stability of the church at Hippo. This version of Augustine is far more human and relatable, in both his strengths and weaknesses.

While I would not recommend this as easy reading, or as an introduction to Augustine’s life and times, Augustine: A New Biography is well worth the endeavor. Its perspective is unique and compelling, and unmasks Augustine in a way that leaves you wanting more of him. I have removed Augustine of Hippo, the Confessions and City of God from my shelf, and added them to the pile of things marked “to be read.” Rather than feeling satisfied with an Augustine refresher, this book revealed just how much more there is to contemplate, and made me want to do so.

 

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham, Random House, 2003, 490 pp.

franklin-winstonI tend to move through various eras in my historical interests. In the last decade, I’ve spent time with the Revolutionary War heros, then Progressive Era, then most recently with Lincoln. I was ready for a new era, and I felt ready to look again at the Depression and Second World War. Franklin and Winston seemed like a good place to start.

Jon Meacham has assembled a fascinating collection of material to tell the story of the intimate personal relationship of these two political giants. He quotes liberally from their letters and cables to one another, as well as detailed accounts from those who were present at their many of their meetings such as Harry Hopkins, Averill Harriman, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clementine and Mary Churchill, as well as others who were present at only one or two dinner parties with Roosevelt and Churchill together.

The story he tells is not quite as interesting as I had hoped it would be. Neither a close personal rapport nor a tempestuous alliance, Roosevelt and Churchill’s friendship weathered good times and difficult ones, periods of close connection and tension. They could spat and get on each others’ nerves, or they could be each other’s chief supporters, and it changed depending on the circumstances. Churchill, it seems, held his heart far more open than the more compartmentalized Roosevelt, but that was a matter of personality and style rather than affection. Always, it is illuminating to gain insight into the personalities of famous historical figures. Roosevelt and Churchill, for me, always existed as figures in photographs and old black and white news clips, already iconic, with their images set and legacy clear. Meacham’s account reminds the reader of the men as ordinary yet extraordinary people, caught up in leadership at a historic moment for the world.

Meacham is a good storyteller, but he lacks the strong thesis of a more academic historian. The thesis of the book is simply that the personal connection forged between Roosevelt and Churchill was critical to the outcome of the war and the future of the world. Meacham then chronicles that relationship, rather than analyzes it. It is interesting enough to read his reporting, but I hoped for more critical insight. He offers a quite romantic view of each of  the men. They both had big personalities and big flaws, which Meacham minimizes into delightful quirks of personality.

Franklin and Winston was interesting as a study, but not richly insightful. I wish Meacham had been bolder in his assertions.

Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, HarperPerennial, 1977, 492 pp.

This biography of Lincoln has been sitting on my shelf for at least five years. I’ve always wanted to read it, but never found myself in the mood to reach for it. I think the experience of reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter demanded a palate cleanse and a reboot of my knowledge and understanding of Lincoln. Stephen Oates’ classic on Lincoln was just the thing.

Oates is a gifted storyteller, who crafts this biography as one of the most engaging I’ve read in a long time. He blends the right mix of historical background, quotations from speeches and letters, and researched reporting. He includes enough detail and a wide enough cast of characters to keep it interesting without becoming overwhelming. Most of all, he manages to create suspense in a story we all already know.

Oates’ Lincoln is a driven, driving force. Young Lincoln is ambitious from the start, which belies his reputation as someone who was plucked from relative obscurity. While he did not openly campaign for any office, which was considered too aggressive in his day, he was always angling for position and trying to make his way in the world. He was angry and hurt when he lost or got passed over. His depression haunted his internal life, but he also reveled in being the center of attention in a group.

During his presidency and the war years, Oates’ portrays Lincoln as a guiding, forceful leader. He carried the future of the Union on his shoulders, and felt its weight heavily and personally. He saw the only future in bringing people together across divisions, and so he assembled a team of Cabinet members and generals he thought could get the job done. Oates portrays the ways in which Lincoln grew as a leader during his presidency. At first, he was hesitant to make and enforce a decision, preferring instead to gain consensus. As the war wears on, he still listens and encourages input from those around him, but he is willing to assert himself and give orders when needed when he sees that inaction will do harm.  The Emancipation Proclamation issues from Lincoln’s understanding that sometimes a leader must act boldly, taking unpopular action to force forward movement.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this biography was the way Oates created suspense. We all know that Lincoln grows up to be president, that the Civil War is won by the Union, that Lincoln is assassinated—but Lincoln and his compatriots did not. In all the decisions they made, they did not know if history would prove them right. Oates captures that tension, the way Lincoln discerned the course of action he ought to take at every turn. I appreciated the reminder that even those who are recognized among the greatest of leaders do not act with the confidence and surety of hindsight.

While it’s now 35 years old, I think Oates’ biography withstands the test of time, and it provides an engaging read for anyone who wishes to know Abraham Lincoln better. He has written a follow-up book, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (1994), which clarifies some issues from the first biography, but does not replace it. I’ve added that second volume to my list of things to read, and hope it doesn’t take five more years to get there.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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