James McPherson has been very busy this year. He has already published a lengthy study of Lincoln titled, Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. The other day I received an advanced copy of a concise biography of Lincoln by McPherson published by Oxford and slated for release in February 2009. How concise is this book? Well, if you just include text it tops out at 67 pages. It’s hard to know who might be in the market for this book. A few years ago Oxford published a fairly short Lincoln biography by the late historian, William Gienapp, which I use in my survey classes. It runs just over 200 pages and my students thoroughly enjoy it.
I perused through it just to see if it might be worth using in my classes. As I suspected there isn’t much here to consider. It offers a basic outline of Lincoln’s life and maybe enough to allow you to run a Jeopardy category on the subject. You wouldn’t know this, however, if you read the blurbs on the back of the book:
“James McPherson’s new book is an invaluable contribution–an authoritative biography…that can be read at a single sitting.” — Douglas L. Wilson
McPherson “manages to convey in prose that is both lucid and accessible the complexity of this fascinating figure, the challenges he faced, and what he achieved.” — Shelley Fisher Fishkin
“Abraham Lincoln should be read by every American, indeed by every person in the world over, who wants to understand the preeminent American president.” — Lewis E. Lehrman
I don’t doubt that this is a decent short biography of Lincoln, but to describe it in such terms is to take a leap off the deep end. Clearly, if you only have a few hours in your life to learn about our 16th president than this is probably the book for you. You will be conversant in polite company and you will have managed to steer clear of the DiLorenzo types that pose as serious Lincoln scholars, but that’s about it.