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Few historical figures can rival Abraham Lincoln's constant ability to prompt interesting and first-rate scholarship. The paucity of the record for his early life, his enigmatic personality and lifelong reluctance to reveal himself even to intimates, and the profundity of the public issues that he faced: all encourage speculative analysis and have worked in recent years to attract the attention of some of the very best American historians. Though as a young man Lincoln mournfully judged that he had "done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived," he would later recognize, during the second year of an increasingly brutal conflict, that the "fiery trial" of war meant that the Union's leaders "will be remembered in spite of ourselves in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation." But he would scarcely have credited that he should become a subject of historical attention second only to Jesus Christ.
Lincoln was himself suspicious of the biographical form, a caution shared by many--perhaps most--academic historians writing in recent times, at least as far as the lives of "great men" are concerned. For much of the period since the 1960s, attention to social structures, political cultures and processes, ideological tides, popular movements and voting behavior has widely taken precedence over the study of individual leaders: "bottom-up," not "top-down," approaches have been much more in vogue. With the exception of Stephen Oates's With Malice Toward None (1977), no biography of Lincoln worthy of note appeared during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet over the last decade several justly acclaimed lives of the Union president have played their part in an extraordinary and more general renaissance in American Civil War studies. Both David Herbert Donald, with Lincoln (1995), and Allen C. Guelzo, with Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999), have produced prizewinning, distinctive, and highly readable biographies, the one emphasizing Lincoln's "passivity," the other Lincoln's serious engagement with the intellectual ideas of his time, including religious ones. In Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998), Douglas L. Wilson has creatively mined the recollections of Lincoln's contemporaries to provide a compelling portrait of his emotional trials during early manhood. And Mark A. Neely, in The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America (1993), has distilled years of authoritative Lincoln scholarship into a short political study. Now William E. Gienapp, Donald's colleague at Harvard and an unsurpassed historian of the early Republican party, offers his own reading of the sixteenth president.
Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America is a masterpiece of compression and balanced synthesis. In less than 200 pages of crisp text, interspersed with maps and contemporary illustrations, Gienapp surveys the whole of Lincoln's life, private and public, domestic and professional, from his backwoods beginnings to his assassination and martyrdom. The book moves at pace but not so fast as to prevent considered judgments and skillful exposition of complex issues. Three of its eight chapters take Lincoln to the threshold of the White I-louse, charting his stuttering early progress as an ambitious, enterprising young man in New Salem, determined to turn his back on the rural grind, and then as a citizen of Springfield aspiring to a career of distinction in law and politics. Gienapp tells a story of setbacks and-for so it appeared when Lincoln's single term in Congress came to a close in 1849-of political dead ends. …