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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Speculative Biography

      Of the 16,000 books produced about Abraham Lincoln since his death 155 years ago, not one, in the view of the historian and biographer David S. Reynolds, fits the definition of a "full-scale cultural biography." Reynolds, the author and editor of 16 books on 19th-century America, has set out to fill that void with Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, a prodigious and lucidly rendered exposition of the character and thought of the 16th president as gleaned through the prism of the cultural and social forces swirling through America during his lifetime.

     More character study than narrative biography, this Lincoln portrait, fully 922 pages of text, goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man: his tastes, likes, dislikes, the quality of his thinking, the evolution of his ideas--all shaped and molded by the society around him. At the same time, Reynolds succumbs to a pitfall in drawing conclusions about how particular Lincoln experiences influenced his later thoughts and actions when no evidence for such casual effects is discernible. The author employs speculative language abundantly, as when he writes within one three-page section: "Must have been also saddened by," "could not have been moved by," "could have exposed him to," "must have also been aware," and "appears to have been influenced."

Robert W. Merry, "More Than Just Honest," The New York Times Book Review, November 15, 2020

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