No Ordinary Tome

Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's much anticipated book about Abraham Lincoln, marks her return to the arena after a devastating scandal. Throughout her personal trials, Goodwin says, Lincoln himself proved to be a major source of consolation. "His whole philosophy was not to waste precious energies on recriminations about the past"

The "Local Authors" section of the Concord Bookshop slyly puts Emerson, Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott in front of the browser, who has probably come to the old Massachusetts town to see the "rude bridge that arched the flood" back in April of 1775. This is the essential small town of the American Revolution, but as any visitor soon discovers, and as the bookshop display confirms, the Civil War sits upon it much more righteously. John Brown twice, in 1857 and 1859, came to raise funds at the town hall, and Emerson, who gave the rude bridge its poetic description, was in the audience both times, looking not back but forward, to wherever the abolitionist tide would soon be taking the town and the country. In its later eagerness to remember those who died in the War of the Rebellion, Concord managed to raise its monument—a large obelisk that still dominates the town square—before the year 1866 was out.

It has taken Doris Kearns Goodwin ten years, about a third of the time she's lived in Concord, to raise up her monumental study of Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet, Team of Rivals. She first came out here to pick apples while a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s, a time that brought her fatefully together with Lyndon Johnson, first as a White House fellow and then as a confidante and biographer. But today when she refers to the "sixties" she's likely to be talking about the decade of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, not John Kennedy and LBJ. The "fifties," similarly, is now the time of Kansas-Nebraska, Dred Scott, and the caning of Charles Sumner, the decade in which her Concord home was built and the United States became a house divided.

Goodwin remains the approachable historian next door, the television commentator once described as "the one with the normal hair." Her childhood nickname, "Bubbles," bestowed because of her effervescent storytelling, still fits too, and yet there's a careworn fragility to her physical presence: an extreme thinness, eyes that will suddenly go wide and wan. In the fall of 2005, three years after a devastating scandal, she is operating under a double and paradoxical burden: Has her ten years' labor given us anything different from what's in the hundreds of other Lincoln books stored floor-to-ceiling in her home? And even if so, has she given proper deference, and citation, to all the scholarship within them?

Team of Rivals begins with a truth that Frederick Douglass held to be self-evident as early as 1876: "The whole field of fact and fancy has been gleaned and garnered. Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln." In fact, at the time Douglass spoke, only the first geologic layer of Lincoln literature had begun depositing itself upon the historical and popular consciousness. Anecdote and apologia—including the reminiscences of William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, and the life jointly written by his personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay—would continue to pour out for decades. For much of the twentieth century Carl Sandburg's loud, circus-tent hagiography would dominate the field, its vast American audience only sometimes drawn away by the mature, unsentimental studies of scholars such as J. G. Randall and David H. Donald. Beveridge, Thomas, Oates: almost every year brings another. At times the student of Lincoln almost thinks he hears them singing the old Union volunteers' song: "We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!"

Was Goodwin intimidated by their endless ranks? "Oh, surely at the start," she told me in the first of my two interviews with her, at her home in Concord. "Oh, there's no question." But she "put that panic in abeyance for a while," introduced herself to the community of contemporary Lincoln scholars ("enormously welcoming"), and faced the simple fact that she "wanted to do Lincoln," which meant "wanting to live with this subject, wanting to go back into the past and learn about the nineteenth century, which I didn't know much about." Besides, "there wasn't anywhere else to go," no other figure or period of such engrossing magnitude, she decided after winning a Pulitzer Prize for writing No Ordinary Time, about Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Second World War.

During the last phone call Goodwin ever had from her first subject, Lyndon Johnson, he complained about Sandburg's Lincoln, which Johnson was still reading two days before he died. Lincoln just wouldn't come alive for him. "And if that's true for me," he lamented, "one president reading about another, then there's no chance the ordinary person in the future will ever remember me. No chance."

Actually, one can argue that for all its disjointedness, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), Goodwin's youthful, almost coltish book, still succeeds in bringing Johnson psychologically alive; and some comfort derived from that early achievement must have abided in her as late as 2002, when she went from being a media favorite to being the subject of stories with headlines like "No Ordinary Crime" (Newsweek).

Journalists were already on the plagiarizing trail of the popular historian Stephen Ambrose when they learned that several dozen unmarked quotations from Lynne McTaggart's biography of Kathleen Kennedy, JFK's sister, were present in Goodwin's The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, which had been published in 1987. The duplications, laid out by The Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times's Peter King, were extensive, serious enough to have necessitated an out-of-court settlement between McTaggart and Goodwin in the late 1980s—not long after Goodwin had told Publishers Weekly of her pride in "learning how to craft a book" from her work on The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. "You read all the relevant material," she told PW's interviewer, "you synthesize all the books, you speak to all the people you can, and then you write down what you know about the period. You feel you own it."

Such blitheness disappeared into contrition when the McTaggart matter came to light. Goodwin explained in Time magazine that when she'd been writing footnotes for the Kennedy volume, a few sources did not get "fully rechecked." "I relied instead," she said, "on my notes, which combined direct quotes and paraphrased sentences. If I had had the books in front of me, rather than my notes, I would have caught mistakes in the first place and placed any borrowed phrases in quotes." This is not a procedure that a bank examiner's daughter could have confessed to with much pride, and Goodwin's normal hair became quickly less evident on television. She would soon enough resume contributing to NBC, but she has never returned to PBS's NewsHour.

Doris Kearns Goodwin and I have a lot in common: Catholic childhoods in the burgeoning postwar Diocesis Petropolitana in Insula Longa (the Diocese of Rockville Centre, on Long Island); Harvard; and Lincoln, whose assassination is the central event in my novel Henry and Clara. More awkward, I had published a fairly well-known and some would say Draconian book on plagiarism (Stolen Words) that was often referred to in discussions of the McTaggart affair. I came to Concord to talk mostly about Lincoln, but we both knew that the other subject would arise—as it will all along Goodwin's upcoming two-month book tour.

During my first visit to her house, in the fall of 2004, she showed me not only the massive chronological ledgers she had constructed for the day-to-day activities of the principal characters in her yet-to-be-completed Lincoln book, but also an enormous binder full of extensive footnotes, which she says she has learned to write contemporaneously with the text. Her anxiety was evident, as it would be on my second visit, this summer, during which she more than once asked to go off the record when the issue of plagiarism came up.

Because Simon & Schuster (her publisher in 1987 and now) is "giving me the space to do it," Goodwin says, the Lincoln footnotes will be "as important as the narrative, as the historical detail, as the veracity of the characters—all the other things that I've always cared so much about." Although criticized for relying too heavily on researchers, she still, without apology, uses them, including Linda Vandegrift, who worked on the Kennedy book. "I never had a 'stable' in the first place," Goodwin says. To avoid errors in transcription she now electronically scans or photocopies sources and has taken care "to double-check and triple-check everything" herself.

"It's interesting," she says. "I think if I'd had to go out on the book tour two or three years ago, I might have felt closer to the event, and it would have been more nervous-making in a certain sense. But you know, at this point I feel really proud of what the book is. I know that certainly I've worked harder on it and put more life force into it than anything I've done before." Lincoln himself has proved a consoling figure; his "whole philosophy," Goodwin says, "was not to waste precious energies on recriminations about the past."

It's unclear to me what recriminations might be in order, or why, but long since sick of the subject of plagiarism myself, and mindful that everyone seems to discover his own needs in Lincoln's story, I don't resist the let's-move-on spirit of the Second Inaugural Address that hovers over our conversation—not if it will let us proceed to Lincoln himself, about whom Doris Kearns Goodwin has written an enormous book possessed of a friendly grandeur and, against all odds, a considerable freshness.

Having produced a paucity of personal letters and no diaries in an era when public men often composed a surfeit of both, Lincoln—like Shakespeare and Jesus—forces biographers into a greater-than-usual reliance on what contemporaries wrote about him. Their diaries and letters become competing, fragmentary gospels through which the Union's savior is reconstructed into a tentative whole. One sees this oblique method, the alternation of multiple perspectives, again and again in modern depictions of Lincoln, from Gore Vidal's 1984 novel to "We Are Lincoln Men," the collection of friendship studies with which David H. Donald followed up his 1995 biography.

Presented by

Thomas Mallon is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book is the novel Bandbox.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In