Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858

by Albert J. Beveridge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1928. Large 8vo. xxviii+607+741. 2 vols. Illus. $12.50.
SENATOR BEVERIDGE has formed, as a result of his Life of Marshall, a definite theory of the biographer’s task. In a private letter he wrote: ‘Assemble the facts and all the facts, little and big, and put them in their proper relation — they tell the story far more dramatically than any fine writing or “interpretation” can tell it. My idea is that facts require no explanation because they explain themselves, provided of course that all of them are gotten and fitted together.’ Obviously, this is not the mode of the moment. It is far removed from the views of Mr. Guedalla or M. Maurois. It is the expression of a mind more scientific, with less faith in impressionism, than theirs; a mind that sets a value on objectivity which they repudiate. It is not the only ideal of biographical excellence. But it is a great one. It calls, in heroic degree, for patience, for unconquerable zeal, and for an eye for evidence at once comprehensive and microscopic.
The first of these qualities was the taproot of Mr. Beveridge’s achievement. Because of it he was able to sustain a fury of application that few men could have endured. He scorned the use of research assistants. ‘I can tell within fifty pages,’ he once said, ‘whether a man did his research himself or had someone else do it for him.’ Whether the dictum is not a council of perfection may be fairly open to question. Nevertheless, it is a shadow of this man’s zeal for his task. He unflinchingly stuck to his theoretical guns. Instead of having some expert investigator transcribe, or calendar, the faded manuscript records of the Illinois legislature of Lincoln’s day, — difficult manuscript, mainly valueless, but with here and there precious bits of fact hitherto unknown, — he strained his eyes, and wore his nerves, laboriously exploring that dreary heap of the dust of politics. As to printed sources, no man ever devoured them more voraciously.
And in all this he had an eye for evidence that had been trained by a triple experience which in its entirety few biographers have ever had. To begin with, he had legal training, and legal experience. He knew both courts and juries. He added to this a long and rich experience in all phases of practical politics. The analytical observation of the lawyer was wedded to the inner knowledge of how and why men did things in political combinations. Finally, he had served an exacting apprenticeship in preparing a monumental work, the life story of a great genius who fused law and politics in a masterful career.
But even with all this equipment, and with nothing more, it did not follow that he, or anyone, could carry through the huge undertaking which he had attempted. Without a fourth quality he would have been sure to produce something in which you could not have seen the wood for the trees. But in this book, despite its vast mass of facts, that danger is escaped. The happy result is a tribute to the author’s immense energy. This is the quality, difficult to formulate but impossible not to feel, that permeates the whole, that blows through the book like a strong wind, urging the reader before it, and making him feel that, although nothing is said about it, he is being strongly and subtly guided.
It were a bootless effort to cite special portions that should typify the Beveridge method and point of view. But if the reader must have it, even in as brief a notice as this, look at Chapters V and VI, volume II, the Kansas episode, for a specimen of how elaborately the whole background of an episode is built up. By way of close, critical reëxamination of Lincoln’s reaction to an event, take pages 575—583, volume I, which review the famous incident of his first meeting with Stanton in the law case when he was treated by Stanton as a country bumpkin. For fullness of detail, clarity of vision, and nicety of character analysis, this passage could not be excelled.
A term larger than biography is needed to describe these volumes. They are biographical history. It is a great pity that the work was interrupted by Mr. Beveridge’s death, when, relatively, it was little more than begun. Had he lived, the completed work would have served to orient an entire period of American history.