I received this DRC free in exchange for an honest review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for letting me read it; Donald won the Pulitzer for his Lincoln biography, and I was sure this series of essays written for the purpose of dismantling myths surrounding the most revered president ever to occupy the White House would be hidden treasure rediscovered. What a crushing disappointment.
In the introduction, Herbert mentions that his section on abolitionists has drawn a great deal of criticism. Unfortunately, he appears not to have used such criticism as an opportunity to reevaluate the framework that limits his thinking in that section. More on that later; I realized that since this is a collection of essays on various aspects of Lincoln, primarily as president, I needed to set aside the sharp distaste that overwhelmed me initially in reading this selection and see what I thought of the other entries.
I found Donald’s essay regarding Mary Todd Lincoln interesting. Another, which addressed the folklore surrounding Lincoln, part of which involved every possible religious denomination attempting to claim him as one of their own when in reality, he just wasn’t all that religious, was interesting; I could have done without the Rastus-style written dialect provided to the African-American source he quoted.
In fact, it is Donald’s writing—and lack of it—regarding African-Americans that put my hackles up. I realized part way into it that this problem is going to be a common one for any Caucasian American scholar whose main body of work around the Civil War was written before the Civil Rights movement. For a long time, the American intelligentsia was tremendously segregated, and those at almost entirely white institutions of learning would never have deigned to call upon professors at traditionally Black universities or utilize the publications of Black historians. (It’s also before the first wave of feminism of the 60’s and 70’s, and so no woman is considered a credible resource; but that is a secondary consideration to the grave matter of Donald’s easy dismissal of Black historians, due to the topic at hand.)
Anyone that has delved deeply into the study of abolition and the Underground Railroad has to know that the majority of abolitionists in the North were free Black people. They didn’t turn up in Caucasian newspapers, but they were certainly quoted in the Black press. In most cases they did not attend meetings hosted by Caucasians unless specifically invited, as happened sometimes in Quaker-sponsored gatherings. But if WEB DuBois could find this information, then David Pulitzer Donald could have found it, too. His supercilious, offhand treatment of Black people when they are mentioned at all tells us why he chose not to go there.
Had Donald done all the work, rather than choosing those that suited his personal biases, he would have known how extensive the line of support was for John Brown. But he would have had to access publications that featured the writing of Black journalists, because according to DuBois and other sources, Brown did not discuss his plan with any other Caucasian abolitionists except his sons. In short, African-Americans and the information they left behind could have better informed Donald’s essays, but in dismissing them, he came up with incorrect conclusions.
Any essay that touched on what should happen to Black slaves in the south, or that could have included what was being said and done by Black citizens in the north, shared this deficit of information and necessarily misinformed Donald’s conclusions.
The final essay, “A. Lincoln, Politician”, gave me an accurate and interesting tidbit: Lincoln had an understanding with Stanton, one that made its way into private correspondence and was thus documented, that when he came up with an idea that for reasons beyond his own knowledge was absolutely impossible to implement, Stanton was to denounce it, and then Lincoln would passively accept that his cranky Secretary of War had made the call. This makes a great deal of sense; in a way, Stanton was Lincoln’s version of Spiro Agnew—but without the corruption and financial scandal. Every president needs someone close by in their administration to play the role of bad cop in smothering popular but ill-advised initiatives, and for Lincoln, Stanton was that man.
Before reading this collection of essays, I was so impressed with Donald’s achievements that I had gone to my wish list and added his biography of Lincoln in the hope I might receive a copy—even a used one—for Mother’s Day. As soon as I reached the essays dealing with race in this collection, I went back to that list and removed the biography.
I’ve read enough by this guy.