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.