Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lincoln's Youth by Louis A. Warren

In honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth, I am going to read at least one of my Lincoln books every month. This might be hard for other people, but I have about 20 or so of them, so there you go.

This was the only book I had that specialized in the early years of Lincoln, so I decided to start with it. Acquired a few years ago on a trip to Indianapolis, it boasted an account of Lincoln's time in the Hoosier state. Written for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, I was hoping for an accounting of his time spent growing up, challenging his father's primitive world view and outgrowing the pioneer surroundings about him.

Now the thing is, there are two kinds of old history books. On one hand, you have the ones that, while not having all the modern access of today, are still worth reading. On the other hand, you have jingoistic false-faced simplistic texts that don't dare to criticize the subject at hand. They are worthless to anyone who doesn't think John Wayne movies are historically accurate.

Well, unfortunately for me, this was not only one of those books, it was really a 40 page pamphlet masquerading as a full book, with the extra 150 or so pages filled with childish morality comments, extracts from books "Abraham must have read", and listings of people who had little or nothing to do with Lincoln himself, by the author's own admission.

I should have known I was in trouble when Warren began the book by showing that Lincoln was descended from hearty New England Protestant stock. (He doesn't refer to Lincoln's bloodline as being "pure American" but you can tell by reading through the lines and the pains he takes to find the bloodline for both of Lincoln's parents as well as his step-mother that this is of vital importance to Warren.) But I soldiered on through the scanty facts and past pages of quotes from Franklin's autobiography, Murray's English Reader, a glowing biography of Washington filled with historical inaccuracies that Warren actually praises because it's "the perfect example for youth to follow!"

Perhaps the worst sections are where Warren tries to play child psychologist, predicting when Lincoln got interested in girls (despite ignoring evidence that suggests he may not have been interested in girls at all--that he himself quotes!), began to be his own man, and so on. They're so classically 1950s as to almost be laughable if this book wasn't being reprinted as a good text to use for information on Lincoln's early years.

However, the clincher for me is that Warren repeatedly tries to patch together a good relationship between Lincoln and his father, which is exactly the opposite of everything I've ever read, going all the way back to children's books on the subject. He even claims that:

"Thomas Lincoln was a worthy parent. There is not recorded a single factual incident in which he brought discredit to his family or himself. The death of Abraham's mother tended to draw him closer to his father. It is not difficult to visualize a congenial filial relationship between a father who was good-humored, 'loving everybody and everything,' and a son who was 'kind to everybody and everything.' Certainly these parallel characteristics should have created an ideal father and son companionship."

Now first of all, the quotes come from Lincoln's step-mother, not a person inclined to criticize her husband. Second, Warren places in a footnote that Lincoln's first extensive biographer, William Herndon (his law partner) states the exact opposite was true, rather than deal with that in the main text. (After all, you have to have room to quote the laws of a church Lincoln worked at, which is far more important than his relationship to his father.) And third, Warren himself says "should have created", proof that he cannot find a way to substanciate his family values claim.

It's shoddy research like the above which causes me to question everything else that appears factual, such as Lincoln's first jobs away from his father, or his ambiguous love life at this time. While I appreciate sections that quote Lincoln's writings in his school books, proof that Thomas Lincoln was not poor by pioneer standards, and a little of the history of the surrounding neighborhood, there's simply too much padding and supposition for my taste. Add on the overtly Christian opinions of the writer, who must insert his values onto Lincoln at every opportunity, and I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth.

The book calls Lincoln "Indiana's finest contribution to civilization," which would be like Pennsylvania claiming Dwight Eisenhower was formed here (he lived here for a time, just like Lincoln lived for a time in Indiana). Warren can be excused for not listing David Letterman, as he was only a baby when the book was written. It's an exaggeration that's typical of the book's text--a lot of fluff and only a bit of substance.

Those looking to learn more of Lincoln would be better served elsewhere. Meanwhile, my Lincoln collection just got reduced to 19. I hope for better luck as the year goes on.

1 comment:

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