Abraham Lincoln A Biography (Book review)

Abraham Lincoln A Biography cover

Abraham Lincoln A Biography

Benjamin P. Thomas (1952, Knopf/Southern Illinois University Press)

 I first became interested in Abraham Lincoln after stopping off in Lincoln, Illinois on a trip through the Midwest in March of 2013. During some dismal weather I found out about the Postville Courthouse and the Lincoln Heritage Museum at Lincoln College – both located in Lincoln and both proved to be very interesting. Lincoln used Postville Courthouse as he traveled the Eight Circuit as a young lawyer. The Lincoln Heritage Museum features a wealth of Lincoln’s private possessions, such as furniture, stationary and even a lock of his hair. When I visited the museum, it was still located in a somewhat cramped and dark room, but apparently they will be using new, improved facilities in the near future. It was still fascinating, with an exhibition dedicated and introducing all American Presidents amongst all the Lincoln related stuff, which was very welcome to me as for me as a European my American history knowledge is still rather sketchy.

Lincoln christened the new town in August 1853 (see photo below)

Abraham Lincoln marker in Lincoln, IL

After returning from my trip I searched for a biography about him, as I was reluctant to watch Steven Spielberg’s film, as I am not very fond of his films. However, I guess that I will be catching up on that at some point, I asked the person working at the Lincoln Heritage Museum what he thought about the movie and in his opinion it’s not that badly made and fairly accurate about the facts, and I am sure Daniel Day Lewis’ did a great job on portraying Abraham Lincoln.

A quick search revealed this biography to be something of a standard and is reported to be the best one, so I decided to purchase it. As I knew very little before I started reading the book, I wasn’t aware of Lincoln’s troubled nature with dark moods he encountered a lot of times during his life for example. I was especially captivated by the first chapters describing his upbringing which can only be called humble, in an America in its early stages – an intriguing insight into an US, drastically different from the one we experience in the 21st century. What struck me most where the multitudes of work lines people at that time tried to make a living with, very different to the world I come from, where you more or less stick to the job you decided early on in your life, and possibly only change your career one or two times in your life at most. What I also found amazing early on in the book, was his almost complete lack of formal education (he visited school for less than a year), and that you could study law by reading books alone, lying on a pile of wood for example. (As I found out reading on, it was not that uncommon, but still).

Somewhat of a disappointment for me though for me was the realisation that his stance towards the issue of slavery and the treatment of black people was not as clear as I assumed it was. As far as I can tell it was always in him, but as President and throughout his political career before that, it was probably not always very wise to profess to his beliefs openly – an explanation maybe, but still something to be frowned at in my opinion. Being white and European, I am by no means an expert on these matters, and they aren’t THAT near to me heart, but it is of course not a question that all people are equal, whatever their colour. Reading for example that he thought that the white and black race were better off apart at some point, or that he tried to ship them off to middle America to build up their own country, made me shudder on a few occasions (chapter ‘… Piled High with Difficulty’).

However, especially towards the end and throughout the war it became increasingly clear on a number of occasions that he was a man full of compassion, he granted parole to a lot of soldiers for example during the war and was in favor of rebuilding the nation instead of punishing the South – which made me respect and like him a great deal.

I still don’t claim to be much of an expert on his life, the Civil war or American history after reading Abraham Lincoln A Biography, but the book gave me something of an insight into all these things, and encouraged me to try to find out more about them in the future. The writing is quite accessible, a lot of name-checking making understanding a little bit difficult at times, but it’s still not too hard to follow the going ons, so I would recommend the book to anybody wanting to find out more about a person perhaps shaping US politics and the country as a whole more than anybody else, during what was definitely a challenging time, both for him (he also had the loss of one of his young sons to cope with on top of everything else) and the country.

The book also encouraged me to go and find out more about his life and I plan to visit places such as Springfield,IL and New Salem at some point in the future.

Postville Courthouse (914 5th St, Lincoln, IL)

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Site of Deskins Tavern, opposite Postville Courthouse

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Lincoln Heritage Museum (at Lincoln College)

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Goldmund : All Will Prosper

Goldmund All Will Prosper

Goldmund : All Will Prosper

(2011 Western Vinyl)

Keith Kenniff aka Goldmund aka Helios is an artist whose work wouldn’t normally fit into the concept of this blog very well. His albums as Helios are firmly rooted in dreamy Electric-Ambient-Pop territory and his Goldmund output consisting mainly of minimal piano/modern classical work.

All Will Prosper, on the other hand, is an album of 14 traditional Folk songs from the American Civil War era, plus the Jay Ungar composition Ashoken Farewell (which I am fortunate enough to be aware of from the ‘Ashokan Farewell/Beautiful Dreamer Songs Of Stephen Foster’-CD), and does tie in with the things I want to cover on here perfectly.

What we get are well-known songs such as Amazing Grace, Dixie, Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier and All Quiet on the Potomac. I hadn’t heard a few of the others before – but that is perhaps not all that surprising, given I am from Europe, so these are understandably not as familiar to my ears as they might be to yours (if you are from the US that is). Or maybe you are sick to death of them, as you had to learn them at school and haven’t listend to them for ages. However, even if that should be the case or you plain have forgotten how they sound – on here they most probably sound very different from the way you know them. Not a terrible lot to be said about them either – almost all of them are slow to very slow, all of them instrumental, and with the exception of Dixie on which Keith Kenniff is supported by his brother (I believe) on an upright bass, arranged only with Piano and/or Acoustic guitar. The piano has been recorded with the piano top open and you can hear pedals being pushed and his fingers scratching on the guitar strings as the microphones were placed very close to the guitar.

All songs are very short, (the 15 songs on All Will Prosper only amount to a total playing time of under 34 minutes) and most of them sound a bit alike, at only cursory listen you hardly even notice the end of one and the beginning of the next track. On most other albums this fact could probably be described as something of a weakness, but on here it works very well and is only adding to the reflective, slightly melancholic and utterly peaceful, calming atmosphere throughout the whole album.

I was surprised to hear Barbara Allen on here as I was only aware of that song from the Alasdair Roberts version, a quick internet search revealed that its roots do indeed lie in the British Isles, but it quickly became a standard in the US as well.

Quite impossible (and unnecessary) to pick highlights, but if I had to choose one, it would probably be Amazing Grace  – even I have heard this so many times before, it’s hard to be moved by it, but this almost slowed down to a standstill version is nothing but – amazing.

The album also works very well for me as I perfect accompaniment for the book I am currently reading  – a biography of Abraham Lincoln.