Abraham Lincoln seen through the social and cultural prism

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Abraham Lincoln seen through the social and cultural prism

Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds, Penguin Press, US $35.00, Pp 1062, September 2020, ISBN 978-1594206047

He was born in 1809 in a one-room log cabin in Frontier Kentucky. He could get only one year of formal schooling, but he rose to the pinnacle of power through hard work and political acumen. Moreover, he was born for his times. This is the story we read in every book on the life of 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. In Abe, what is best described as a cultural biography, Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York David S. Reynolds says that there was a sentimental stain in the culture that held appeal for Lincoln. But the cultural scene was also ablaze with sensationalism, violence, and zany humor – literature, penny newspapers, music, and popular exhibits full of strange, freakish images that sometimes verges on the surrealistic. This was the bizarre, turbulent popular culture that Lincoln participated in daily in his jokes and stories, which were modified versions of an American humor, whose chief characteristic was described by Lincoln as grotesque.

David S. Reynolds argues and reveals that Lincoln was thoroughly immersed in it. When he entered the presidency, he was neither inexperienced nor unprepared. To the contrary, he redefined democracy precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions – from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive. David S. Reynolds says that from his dual ancestry in Virginia and New England, Lincoln inherited both the code of honor associated with Cavalier culture and the moral sense attributed to bygone Puritanism. From an early age, his experience on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana instilled him with both powerful self-reliance and a profoundly democratic instinct linked to his immersion in nature and his reflections about mortality. He writes, “Faced with the raw energies of frontier culture, he developed a remarkable ability to tame the wild, manifested later on in his measured responses to seemingly uncontrollable social and cultural phenomena.” When he entered mainstream society as a lawyer and politician, he found himself in a whirl of passionate reform movements – notably abolitionism, temperance, women’ rights, spiritualism, and Know-Nothingism – that he learned from even as he remained removed from them.

Witnessing reformers on all sides who took extreme positions, Lincoln struck close to the center. David S. Reynolds argues that unlike many other centerists, he was neither dull nor indecisive. His liveliness owed much to the innovative performance culture of his day. Though centered, he leaned to the left, using every means possible – including hard war – to push the nation toward equal rights and an activist federal government that promoted justice. Lincoln wanted to create “a Union of hearts and hands as well of States.” David S. Reynolds says that Lincoln’s Unionism went well beyond the restoration of the political union. It pointed to his ongoing attempt to provide unity or direction to many cultural forces in America that tended towards conflict, fragmentation, and chaos. Lincoln envisaged a nation that was both united and committed to political equality.

Abe is an authentic cultural and social biography of Abraham Lincoln and his times. David S. Reynolds explains the life and politics of Abraham Lincoln in the context of the then prevailing culture. David S. Reynolds shows that Lincoln fully understood the cultural and social forces and knew how to use them to his advantages and achieved his goal of a united country which is what distinguishes this biography from others. David S. Reynolds provides new perspectives to understand nineteenth-century America and the Civil War. As a gifted writer, David S. Reynolds brings Abraham and his time — the Civil War — to life in a book that took many of his years to write. It is a pure joy to read this book if you are interested in American history.

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