Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage by Joe Wheeler

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I am fascinated by Abraham Lincoln, and last month’s reread of Newbery-winner Lincoln: A Photobiography (reviewed here) only reinforced that.

Anthologist and “historian of ideas” Joe Wheeler has also been fascinated by Lincoln, and he spent seventeen years studying the fascinating man and collecting stories about him. Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage is Joe Wheeler’s collection of favorite stories from the life of the sixteenth president, focusing on the development of Lincoln’s faith and morals.

I really enjoyed the stories Wheeler collected. The book was personable and readable, so it moved quickly. Because I am religious, I appreciated the emphasis on Lincoln’s faith, and the first-person, opinionated side-notes, while completely unnecessary, made it feel like I was sitting by a rocking chair listening to my grandpa (or someone else’s grandpa) tell his favorite stories from Lincoln’s life. It felt like a book of reminiscences.

Despite that pleasant approach, I still ended up being disappointed at times. It’s important to realize that Wheeler’s Abraham Lincoln is not an academic biography. I’m a compulsive endnote reader, so when I read a story or quote, I immediately want to see where it came from; I’m constantly flipping to the back of the book to look at the sources. With this book, it seemed many of the stories were not documented; none of the epigrams (quotes by Lincoln before sections in the chapter) were documented; and many of the stories that were documented were taken from other biographies, not “original” material.  To avoid being frustrated, I had to keep reminding myself that Wheeler is a compiler of stories, not an academic historian.

I tend to prefer my biographies to be fact rather than hearsay, and I tend to prefer a carefully written, non-personal narrator rather than a first-person narrator that writes in sentence fragments, even if the sentence fragments are more “readable.” But the purpose of this book was different: to build an image of the character of this man that so many people revere. The religious purpose behind the book was rather blatant, but because I knew what it was going in to it, I appreciated it. I wanted to read a book of stories about Lincoln’s faith.

Reading Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage as a collection of stories (and not as a biography) was certainly enjoyable. While reading Freedman’s Photobiography gave me a feel for the facts (Freedman was careful to only give information that was documented fact, claiming to refute the “myths”), Wheeler’s Abraham Lincoln gave me a feel for the traditional, inspiring personality that is the man Abraham Lincoln. I’m glad I read it, but unless you are specifically interested in the canon of stories relating to Lincoln’s faith, I’d probably recommend starting with something more factual and/or academic.

What type of biography do you prefer: academic (endnote heavy) or conversational (story-driven)?

I’ve only read these two biographies of Lincoln, although I have Team of Rivals on my upcoming radar. My interest in this man is still keen. What biography of Lincoln have you read and loved?

I read Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage for the U.S. Presidential Reading project.

If you have reviewed Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage on your blog, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on August 11, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • In general, I want my nonfiction to be factual and backed up. Even if the author is not an academic, I expect it to be well-researched, and that should include original source materials. Otherwise, maybe this author should have written a historical fiction book.

  • J.T. Oldfield, that’s my general thought too. I still liked this when I thought of it as a book of stories from my grandpa. If it were any longer, I may not have had patience for it.

  • Oh, I love me some endnotes. When I’m reading a nonfiction book, I keep one finger in the back, so I can flip easily to check endnotes for things I think are interesting. I much prefer an academic nonfiction book, even though some of the “pop nonfiction” can be a lot of fun.

  • Kathy, This may be just the book for you, just keep in mind it could all be rumor for all we know!

    Jenny, yep, me too! But since I realized right away which type of book this was, it was okay with me. I want to know the traditions about Lincoln too!

  • I like my stories to be accurate and well-documented, but I don’t like having to go to endnotes for it — while I’m reading, I like to get caught up on the story. I don’t like to have to stop the flow of the narrative to get a note or something. I think that’s probably why I’m more drawn to memoir than I am academic biography.

    A lot of the literary journalism I’ve read will have notes in the end for each chapter that talk about where the information came from, what reporting was done, etc, and I enjoy that (both from a readers perspective knowing where the stories/facts came from and from a journalists perspective because I feel like I’m getting to see their process.

  • I would have to agree with Kim on this one. Although I want my biographies to be accurate and factual, I want it to read like a story. I want to be able to get sucked in, to be so interested in the flow of the story that I don’t have time to flick my eyes to the end notes. Right now I’m reading “No Ordinary Time”, a biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and it is the perfect biography (by the standards I mentioned above). I absolutely cannot put it down!

    I’ve often wondered how history textbooks can make history so dry and (dare I say it?) boring. One of my favorite quotes about that comes from Nigel Tranter’s preface to his book “The Story of Scotland”, in which he says that although dates and maps may make up the skeleton of history, “the flesh consists of the stories of men and women like you and me, their trials, temptations, triumphs, treacheries, even tendernesses.” So although I want accuracy as much as the next person, I suppose those trials, temptations and tendernesses is what I am most interested in when reading a biography.

  • My all-time favorite biographer is Hermione Lee, who is a formidable academic with hundreds of pages of endnotes at the backs of all her books. But despite her intellectualism, I find her writing to be anything but dry: it’s thoughtful, lyrical, and approachable, and doesn’t shy away from including occasional first-person anecdotes, which (in my opinion) always add greatly to the overall portrait of her subject. She also recognizes, and reminds her readers, that even with the most scrupulous research, different biographers will necessarily bring different perspectives and agendas to the task of writing, which means that there will always be a subjective element even in the most factually-based book. She embraces this, rather than denying or fighting against it, which I find refreshing. So I guess what I’m saying is that truly transcendent biographies can effectively incorporate both ends of the stylistic spectrum.

  • Kim, I guess that’s why I don’t like memoir! I always question the validity of it: how can they remember that conversation? It’s just so unrealistic to me.

    The journalistic approach sounds nice: it gives the information, but one doesn’t need to flip back and forth to the endnotes.

    Jenni, I have Team of Rivals on my TBR; I’m glad to hear that Doris Kearns Goodwin does a good job at writing biographies!

    I like history textbooks too, and don’t often find them too boring. I’m a bit odd, I guess!

    Emily, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! That’s exactly the kind of biography I love. A well-written one that tells a story and yet is factually based. Good point about every biography being biased in some ways. Every biography has some agenda.

    I have had some of Lee’s biographies on my radar. Sounds like I need to read one of them!!

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