Biography - Michael Burlingame

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A touchstone BIOGRAPHY

excerpt from Allen C. Guelzo's "The Bicentennial Lincolns," from The Claremont of Review of Books, vol. X, no. 1 (winter 2009/10), pp. 45-46:

The score, then, on books for the Lincoln Bicentennial has not been an encouraging one. And this is odd, because the last 15 years have seen a renaissance of Lincoln scholarship, which has made them the golden age of Lincoln studies. A number of currents have combined to swell this flood, not the least of which has been the rebirth of the Abraham Lincoln Association in the 1980s, the stupendous editing accomplishments of the Lincoln Legal Papers project (under Cullom Davis and Daniel W. Stowell) and Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews & Statements about Abraham Lincoln (edited by Douglas Wilson and Rod Davis in 1998), plus the creation of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, with the wise but hidden hand of Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz at the wheel.

No single historian, however, has done more to roll these developments into one enormous Lincolnian package than Michael Burlingame, who is himself responsible for a small industry of editions of Lincoln-related memoirs and recollections (including the papers of John G. Nicolay, the diary of John Hay, and the newspaper correspondence of Noah Brooks). As a student of the late David Donald—the nation's premier Lincolnian until his death last May—Burlingame re-opened what seemed to have been the sealed tomb of Lincoln writing in 1994 with The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. Until that moment, the most conventional of conventions about Lincoln books was that, after so many biographies and biographers over the years, nothing further could possibly be known about Lincoln, and so all new efforts at writing about him could be little more than wearing the ruts just a little deeper.

What occurred to Burlingame, however, was one of those basic—almost primitive—insights that make for the shifting of entire paradigms. Every biographer, he reasoned, works from notes. Most of the notes never manage to get into the biography for reasons of space, just as most of the 3x5 cards we amass for college term papers never get into the final submission. In our case, the excess 3x5s wind up in the waste basket; in the case of famous writers, they wind up in collections of authors' papers in various archives and libraries, where no one except the most diligent (or the most antiquarian) ever bother to call for them. Surely the same thing must hold true for biographers of Lincoln. The more famous (like the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell), the more likely the unused material has survived; the closer they were to Lincoln's time (and Tarbell was really the last to interview people who had personally known Lincoln), the more likely that the unused material contained gems of direct information which no one had ever thought to look for. Tarbell being the easiest example, Burlingame tracked down Tarbell's papers to her alma mater, Allegheny College, and sure enough, what he found was a gold mine of interviews and correspondence from Tarbell's informants which had not made the final cut for Tarbell's The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1903). This set Burlingame onto the track of every archive likely to contain similarly unused cast-offs, and the result, in The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, was a series of essays, escorted by an armada of 200 footnotes each, which unearthed a Lincoln no one had seen in more than a century. In some cases, each chapter's footnotes were as long as the chapter, and just as interesting to read on their own terms.

That this would lead to the creation of a new, comprehensive biography of Lincoln, no one doubted. The only questions were, how big would it be and how long would it take? The last super-biography of Lincoln had been Carl Sandburg's curious, multi-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, which appeared between 1926 and 1939. But Sandburg's Lincoln was as much a poetic saga, glorifying the folksy Lincoln who "had walked out of a Chinese or Russian fairy story...with a handkerchief full of presents he wanted to divide among all the children in the world," as it was a biography, and it played to a far different audience. Burlingame's Abraham Lincoln: A Life was originally planned for six volumes (fearful publishers brought that down to two, and sans all but the most skeletal footnotes) and took a decade-and-a-half to finish. (Even so, Burlingame's Lincoln totals nearly 1,600 octavo pages of text, packaged in a slip-case at $125 a set, but they are worth every centime.) Unlike Sandburg, Burlingame has no interest whatsoever in fairy tale Lincolns. "Sandburg was a poet, I am a scholar," Burlingame writes in a prefatory note, and laus deo for that. And unlike the Pecksniffian chirping of Lincoln's Left-annexationists, Burlingame's Lincoln is self-consciously "a champion of freedom, democracy, and national unity...psychological maturity, moral clarity, and unimpeachable integrity." The Emancipation Proclamation is an unambiguous triumph for freedom, and its apparently desolate vocabulary was designed "to make sure that slaves liberated under the proclamation had a sound legal basis to protect their freedom in court, if necessary." And his death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth was a martyrdom for the cause of black civil rights fully as much as was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination by James Earl Ray.

What is breathtaking is the depth of Burlingame's research—newspapers (the Belleville Weekly Advocate, not just the New York Times), collections of manuscripts ranging from the Beinecke Library at Yale to the "fragment of the manuscript" from Katherine Helm's Mary, Wife of Lincoln (1928) which he found in the William H. Townsend Papers at the University of Kentucky, and of course the Ida B. Tarbell Papers (not only at Allegheny, but at Smith College, too). If there is a comment, phrase, observation, reminiscence, or recollection concerning Abraham Lincoln which Burlingame has not exhumed, it can probably stay safely buried. This, at last, simplifies the dilemma of the Bicentennial Lincoln books: If you want to read for amusement, read Holzer's Lincoln, President-Elect or Lachman's The Last Lincolns. If you want to read for comprehension, read Burlingame, because from now and into the foreseeable future, Burlingame's is the touchstone biography everyone who aspires to the study of Lincoln must embrace, cite, read, and occasionally quarrel with.

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln, Burlingame, Lincoln Historian