Saturday, May 30, 2009

McPherson succinctly packages the Lincoln story

If there is one thing Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson has learned from his studies of Abraham Lincoln, it’s economy of words. While Lincoln said more in two minutes than his fellow speaker at Gettysburg did in two hours, McPherson’s 79-page biography, Abraham Lincoln, captures the essence of the sixteenth president’s life and legacy in a manner equal to that of scores of other books with 10 or 20 times more pages.

Of course, this author can’t paint an full-scale mural of the multi-faceted Lincoln in less than one hundred pages. But that’s okay.

Many who’ve written 500-700 pages haven’t been able to do that either. That’s why you’ll find so many books which cover only one aspect, or sometimes even just one year, of Lincoln’s life.

However, McPherson does hit upon the key personal events and covers the most important aspects of Lincoln’s political and presidential careers. He condenses a very complex life into a Reader’s Digest version - and it actually works.

As the book will surely whet the appetite for Lincoln in many readers, McPherson has helpfully added a few pages at the end pointing folks to the most crucial Lincoln reference works and a number of other fine biographies.

I found only one small error – one which neither McPherson nor his publisher may have known before the book went to print. When he mentions new books in celebration of the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, the author writes of Michael Burlingame’s “three-volume” work. Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life ended up being a two-volume set instead.

In the past, when I wanted to share my love of Lincoln with friends or colleagues, I’d give them a compact little volume called The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Though I still think it’s an appropriate piece for those who aren’t familiar with the railsplitter’s storytelling ability and powerful use of words, McPherson’s book serves a far more valuable purpose. It paints a beautiful diorama of Lincoln’s life in a miniature thimble. Now, when I want to spark the Lincoln fire in others who don’t read much or aren’t Lincoln buffs, I’ll likely light the match with this great new little volume.

There is one question I hear often these days. Friend and strangers alike say, “I want to learn more about Lincoln. What book should I read?” From now on, my answer will be, “I think the best way to get your feet wet is McPherson. Sprinkle yourself with Lincoln with this book, and you’ll be begging for full immersion in no time at all.”

Congratulations, Dr. McPherson. You’ve shown us you can use as many words as it takes to write an award-winning tale of the Civil War, or pare them down as a 200th birthday present for our greatest president. Sometimes the greatest gifts come in the smallest packages.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.


Rebecca said...

James M. McPherson is one of my favorite authors, so I always get excited when he writes about a favorite subject of mine, Abraham Lincoln!

Lincoln Buff 2 said...

Rebecca, if you ever get the chance to hear Dr. McPherson speak, he's also a very engaging speaker.

Thanks for your comment and your enthusiasm about history - and Lincoln, of course. I've really enjoyed your tweets on twitter and look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

Enjoy your journey through the past as you create your own exciting future. See you in cyberspace.