Good books about Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s Melancholy – How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk, 2005.

The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plat to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower.

Lincoln’s Little Girl by Cecelia Colleen Brown.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowel.

I saw the movie Lincoln and realized how little I know about the Civil War. It takes an effort of imagination for me to realize that Americans didn’t know what a grim cataclysm they were facing, or what the outcome would be. It all sounds so “inevitable” in a high school history class. These four (totally different) books gave me a little more perspective.

Schenk wants to raise “fundamental questions about the nature of illness and health”. He does an excellent job of this. Possibly because of his own suffering, Abraham Lincoln was a profoundly compassionate person. If his “melancholy” had been treated the way we now treat “depression”, if it had been medicated away, would he have been a different man? a different leader? It’s well worth reading Schenk’s discussion of Lincoln’s state of mind.

Stashower’s Hour of Peril provides a brisk look at what happened between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration. It also highlights Allan Pinkerton, America’s first professional detective.

Lincoln’s Little Girl is the transcribed diary of Julie Taft, a friend of the Lincoln family during the year before the Civil War. At the age of 16, she had free run of the White House, kept a diary and saved mementos! And by very good fortune, this has come down to us.

What can I say about Sarah Vowel?! She’s a young, breezy writer who often contributed to National Public Radio’s “This American Life” series. Assassination Vacation is an account of a road trip she took with her long suffering sister and precocious nephew to visit every possible site associated with assassinated American presidents, starting of course with Lincoln. She ferrets out obscure historic sites, find statues and plaques, drives by vacant lots…I was interested in how she followed the trail of Lincoln’s murderers, and her discussion of the attempts by descendants of John Wilkes Booth to clear his name. I didn’t read this book – I listened to it (read by Ms Vowel herself) while on a road trip of my own (to Vermont). Very entertaining!

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