13 January 2007

Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (2 volumes, 1926) and The War Years (4 volumes, 1939). New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Abraham Lincoln is dead.

After seven years and countless hours of leisurely reading, the six volumes of Carl Sandberg's biography have come to a close. The end is no surprise, but no less painful for its familiarity. Abraham Lincoln, who felt more deeply than most that all men are created equal and, by sheer force of will established this as fact throughout a divided nation, was shot once behind the left ear while attending the theatre on Good Friday and expired at 7.22 the next morning, 15 April 1865, only days after seeing his cause victorious in the worst struggle this country has yet known.

While Sandburg's work is no longer regarded as the definitive Lincoln biography, it is nonetheless an amazing achievement, with two volumes covering Lincoln's childhood and early career in the Army and U.S. House of Representatives, then four devoted to his truncated two-term Presidency. Drawing heavily on primary sources, such as journals kept by members of the Cabinet, speeches, and published materials of the day, Sandburg constructs a detailed picture of the world, and people, Lincoln knew. We see the petty squabbles of cabinet members, the battle plans of generals North and South, the thoughts of Horace Greeley, Walt Whitman, and Henry Ward Beecher, among others, in their own words. Images, both photographs and reproduced documents, add a further sense of concrete reality to a time which, while only about 150 years past, seems utterly foreign.

Abraham Lincoln is dead; now he belongs to the ages. Sandburg very nearly brings his character to life, but in the end, Lincoln is still dead. Reading six somewhat dry volumes does nothing to change this, but it makes real the man who would not let government of the people, by the people, for the people, perish from the face of this earth.

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