A Very, Very Short Lincoln Biography

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.


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9 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 19, 2009 @ 12:48


    I couldn’t agree more. I also used it as a launching pad to introduce shorter essays that allowed my class to explore more specific topics in much more detail. Gienapp introduced historiographical debates and the shorter pieces allowed my students to see it in action.

  • Andrew Slap May 19, 2009 @ 12:11

    While this post is quite late, I will second (or third?) the praise for the Gienapp biography. I have used it several times with undergraduate classes and it works well. First, it is well written and a nice treatment. Second, the students like it and actually read it. Third, I appreciate how Gienapp brought up historiographical debates in an accessible manner, allowing me to use the book as a launching pad for a larger discussion.

  • Karen Cox Jan 27, 2009 @ 5:27

    I like the Gienapp book. It’s a good read and captures the primary details of his life and even gives some insight into this personality. Clearly, McPherson (and Oxford) are capitalizing on the Lincoln Centennial. I also find it amazing that all the different states with no real connection with Lincoln (North and South) are hosting symposia. I suppose that, like NC, there are plenty of historians working on the era of the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2009 @ 5:30

      I also like the Gienapp biography. My students also enjoy reading it; it’s just the right length. McPherson and Oxford (like a lot of other publishers) are clearly trying to capitalize on the Lincoln bicentennial, which I have no problem with. That said, at one point is a short biography too short?

  • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2008 @ 14:24
  • Greg Rowe Nov 17, 2008 @ 14:12

    Thanks for the input. I’m just looking for something good on Lincoln for my kids. He’s such an intregal part of any study, but much of the literature available for this age group is more juvenile than serious scholarship. I do want my students to grasp his complexities as a person and a President.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2008 @ 14:03

    Greg, — It might work with a class of eighth-graders, but I wouldn’t go much further than that. The language is accessible, though you would no doubt have to explain certain concepts to them. Sorry I can’t say more than this.

  • Greg Rowe Nov 17, 2008 @ 13:59

    Would this be a good supplemental resource for a middle school survey course on the war? While Gienapp’s work is 200 pages, that still will overwhelm some middle schoolers, especially if a text is already assigned for the class.

  • Phil LeDuc Nov 16, 2008 @ 23:39

    Do you think that Dimitri smells blood in the water?

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