Culture  /  Book Review

Lincoln’s Rowdy America

A new biography details the cultural jumble of literature, dirty jokes, and everything in between that went into the making of the foremost self-made American.

Amid the dismal presidential contest of 1856 that put James Buchanan, a moss-backed northern apologist for slavery, in the White House, Walt Whitman, in an essay entitled “The Eighteenth Presidency!,” summoned a very different sort of national leader. Whitman envisaged a “heroic, shrewd, fully-inform’d, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American,” perhaps a “boatman come down from the West across the Alleghanies,” who would “walk into the Presidency, dress’d in a clean suit of working attire.” Then this champion of “the real America” would overturn the politics of “filth and blood,” “dirt and excrement” that had crushed the masses “under the feet of slavery.” That figure uncannily resembled Abraham Lincoln, then virtually unknown outside Illinois: Lincoln the lawyer had indeed been a boatman as well as a rail splitter in his younger days, and although clean-shaven when Whitman wrote, he arrived in Washington early in 1861 fully bearded, as if to fulfill the poet’s prophecy.

In fact, Whitman’s imaginary westerner, a patriot who repudiated party politics and miscreant politicians, differed sharply from the actual Lincoln, who was a politician to his marrow. Still, the image of Honest Abe as an unaffected democratic champion cemented his reputation, and it long survived his death to inspire millions here and abroad. Somehow Whitman outlined the essentials of an enduring Lincoln identity before he or hardly anyone else had heard much of anything about Abraham Lincoln.1 Short of divination, something evidently was in the air in the 1850s that Whitman captured and Lincoln at least appeared to embody.

David Reynolds’s ambitious biography Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times aims to capture that atmosphere, cataloging and evaluating the jumble of cerebral philosophy, dirty jokes, and everything in between that furnished Lincoln’s inner life and fed his public persona. Recognizing Lincoln as the foremost mythic self-made American, Reynolds describes the cultural materials that went into his actual self-making, from weepy parlor songs to tightrope dare-devilry high above Niagara Falls. Drawing on a distinguished scholarly career spent immersed in the popular culture of pre–Civil War America, Reynolds, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, illuminates aspects of Lincoln’s significance that elude more conventional biographers.