“He came so much alive for me that I was haunted in my dreams.”
October 1995 No fewer than 5,000 books have been written about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln over the past 130 years, many of them works of sound scholarship and great literary distinction.
The question, then, as to why an eminent Harvard University historian who already has two Pulitzer Prizes to his credit would choose to write yet another biography of the sixteenth President of the United States is not without purpose.
The truth is that I already had written a good deal about Lincoln in a peripheral fashion, but I had always stayed away from the main subject, David Herbert Donald, 75, said during an interview in his home, located, aptly enough, in the town of Lincoln, Massachusetts. The occasion for our talk was publication of Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, $35), his 15th book, and the first in his oeuvre to deal with the main subject directly.
About eight years ago there came certain kinds of realizations, Donald explained. The first was that I probably had time for one more large project while I’m more or less mostly in command of my faculties. Secondly, I was really not very happy with the books that do exist. All of them have deciding merit, but they did not seem up to date in terms of sources, or more important, in terms of the questions they asked, and the things they were thinking about.
Donald said he began research on the project after he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Look Homeward, a biography of the noted North Carolina novelist Thomas Wolfe. Like his first Pulitzer twenty-seven years earlier for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, that award was for a biography, not history, which has been his primary professional calling.
Of Carl Sandburg’s celebrated six-volume biography of Lincoln, published between 1926 and 1939, and also the recipient of a Pulitzer, Donald is respectful in his judgment, although he does have reservations.
“Carl, whom I knew and loved, was fundamentally a poet and a storyteller. He relied mostly on previously printed sources, old newspapers, old magazines, other biographies and the like, and he
wrote a wonderful, rich, personal, human portrait of Lincoln. But he was not a trained historian. He had no sense of testing evidence as to what could be true and what is true, and what might be false and what is false. I don’t think he ever asked, “What kind of a president did Lincoln make?'”
Among other notable works on the same subject, Stephen B. Oates’s 1977 effort, With Malice Toward None, was written without access to an archive of primary material known as the Lincoln Legal Papers, which only recently has been made available to scholars.
“When I made the decision to go ahead with the project, I said I was going to try and write as if no other biography of Lincoln had yet been written,” Donald said. “I was going to work on his papers, the letters and documents he received, and from what he wrote everything he wrote is now fully published and from the letters and papers of his contemporaries.”
As he spoke, the Charles Warren Professor Emeritus of American History and American Civilization at Harvard University pointed to a shelf in his large library containing 97 reels of microfilm comprising the complete file of Abraham Lincoln Papers, mostly unpublished material maintained in the Library of Congress. He also indicated ten large volumes entitled The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
“Those materials, along with the legal papers that were made available to me, comprise the primary sources for this book,” Donald said. I was able to sit at Lincoln’s side and see how he thought and how he acted, and how he felt about what was going on around him. I felt the pressures that were on him. You can see what people were writing to him, how they were nudging him.
One consequence of sitting by Lincoln’s side, Donald added, is that the martyred president returned the favor. He came so much alive for me that I was haunted in my dreams. I kept waking up in the night, and Lincoln was right there, not approving or disapproving, just saying this is the way it was.
A native of Mississippi who has spent most of his adult life studying, teaching and writing in the North, Donald said his choice for greatest American president before undertaking this project was Thomas Jefferson. If pressed to make a choice now, he would select the subject of his new biography.
The more I have studied Lincoln, the more I have followed his thought processes, the more I am convinced that he understood leadership better than any other American president, he said. With the Lincoln biography now complete, Donald said he is not likely to undertake another project of similar scope, but that he has every intention of writing other books.
Maybe I will write a memoir, perhaps I’ll do some essays, or maybe I will write a mystery story. I love mysteries, and I read them every night before I go to bed. It puts my mind in neutral. If you think about it, the historian’s task is like that of the detective. What is it that could have done this? Why did he do this? Who’s responsible for doing that? These really are detective questions.