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'100 Essential Lincoln Books'    Send a link to a friend

[APRIL 14, 2004]  "100 Essential Lincoln Books." Michael Burkhimer, Cumberland House, 2003, 305 pages.

Review by Richard Sumrall

Since his tragic death at the hands of an assassin in 1865, Abraham Lincoln has continued to fascinate the public like no other American. There have probably been more books written on Lincoln and every aspect of his life than on any other person in our nation's history. So how does someone interested in the former president choose from the myriad of available works? A new bibliographic source is "100 Essential Lincoln Books" by Lincoln scholar Michael Burkhimer.

In selecting these books Burkhimer explains his rationale for inclusion: "This present volume is my attempt to present 100 books I deem ‘essential' for a Lincoln collection and explain why an individual book qualifies. … My main hope is that someone reading this book will come across a book he or she hasn't read and be interested enough to seek it out."

Burkhimer's book contains 10 genres that categorize his choices. These genres offer a revealing look at Lincoln during his time as president and commander in chief during the Civil War as well as his boyhood and adult life. Here's a small sample:

Family and genealogy

In "The Lineage of Lincoln," William E. Barton examines Lincoln's ancestry from three perspectives: Lincoln's paternal ancestors, his maternal ancestors and documentation related to Lincoln's progenitors. The most controversial portion of the book is Barton's assertion that Lincoln's mother Nancy Hanks was born an illegitimate child.

No research on Lincoln's family can be conducted without examining the life and role of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Ruth Painter Randall's "Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage" is described by Burkhimer as "the handbook for apologists of (Mrs.) Lincoln." Despite concerns about the book's objectivity, Burkhimer considers it important to the study of the Lincoln marriage: "If one wants to hear a counterargument to the literature critical of Mrs. Lincoln, this book will serve that purpose."

Pre-presidential years

Don E. Fehrenbacher's "Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s" is important on two accounts. The book is regarded as one of the most authoritative works on Lincoln's political activities in the decade prior to the Civil War; it also reflects the period in Lincoln's life during which he was a circuit-riding lawyer for the district that included Logan County and the future town of Lincoln.


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100 Essential Lincoln BooksSeeking to reinterpret Lincoln's life from age 21 through 33 is Douglas L. Wilson's "Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln." One item of local interest is the account of Lincoln's wrestling match with Jack Armstrong in New Salem. While Wilson concedes that the match was not a pivotal moment in Lincoln's life, it was important for the relationships it helped him establish during the New Salem years.

Psychology and religion

The subject of Lincoln's religion has perplexed readers and scholars for decades. In "The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln," William J. Wolf concludes that Lincoln was a Christian. Wolf uses the many different speeches, letters and public utterances to make his case. Part of the problem, he explains, is that "Lincoln's Christianity was unorthodox, so others thought of him as an infidel."

While Wolf's book addresses Lincoln's religious views, Charles B. Strozier's "Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meetings" seeks to better understand Lincoln's psyche. An important theme in this book is that the many conflicts throughout Lincoln's personal life influenced his public career. In fact, Strozier concludes, Lincoln's personal quest for union with deceased or estranged family members gave meaning to the nation's unraveling as it headed toward civil war.

Michael Burkhimer's "100 Essential Lincoln Books" is an outstanding source for anyone beginning or continuing their understanding of our nation's 16th president. The Lincoln Public Library District currently owns almost half of the books in this bibliography, and most of the other titles are available on interlibrary loan through the Rolling Prairie Library System. This book is recommended to anyone interested in the life and career of Abraham Lincoln.

[Richard Sumrall, Lincoln Public Library District]

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